Friday, December 2, 2022

Supreme Court to Test Free Speech Against Anti-Discrimination

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Monday in 303 Creative v. Elenis, the case testing whether a website designer's free-speech claim trumps a state's anti-discrimination law. Here's my Preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:

INTRODUCTION

The First Amendment prohibits government from compelling speech, and from regulating speech based on its content and viewpoint. But on the other hand, the First Amendment allows the government to regulate conduct, even if the regulation has an incidental effect on speech, so long as the regulation is unrelated to the expression of ideas. And it allows the government more freedom to regulate commercial speech. This case pits these First Amendment principles against each other.

ISSUE

Can a website designer refuse to create a website for a same-sex wedding, even though state law prohibits discrimination by sexual orientation?

FACTS

Lorie Smith is a graphic artist and website designer. She is the sole owner of 303 Creative, her custom design studio, where she provides website and graphic design, branding, marketing strategy, and social-media management services to her clients.

Smith will serve any client, regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation, or gender. But she will not create content that contradicts her Christian beliefs. So, for example, she “will decline any request—no matter who makes it—to create content that contradicts the truths of the Bible, demeans or disparages someone, promotes atheism or gambling, endorses the taking of unborn life, incites violence, or promotes a concept of marriage that is not solely the union of one man and one woman.”

Smith expanded her portfolio to include custom wedding content and websites. According to Smith, “[e]very one of [her] wedding websites will not only express messages about the beauty and eternal commitment of the couples, but will also express approval of the couple’s marriage.” Smith designed a sample of a wedding website that includes a Bible passage, but the website doesn’t otherwise reflect the content of potential future websites. Smith says that her websites will bear a notice that reads, “Designed by 303Creative.com.”

Smith also designed a 303 Creative website page that announced her new wedding services. The design includes a statement that God is calling Smith “to explain His true story about marriage, and to use the talents and business He gave [Smith] to publicly proclaim and celebrate His design for marriage as a life-long union between one man and one woman.” The statement goes on:

These same religious convictions that motivate me also prevent me from creating websites promoting and celebrating ideas or messages that violate my beliefs. So I will not be able to create websites for same-sex marriages or any other marriage that is not between one man and one woman. Doing that would compromise my Christian witness and tell a story about marriage that contradicts God’s true story of marriage—the very story He is calling me to promote.

Smith says that she “cannot yet share that message,” however, because “Colorado forbids it on pain of investigation, fines, and re-education.” Smith is referring to two provisions in the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, or CADA. The first, the Accommodations Clause, prohibits businesses that sell or offer services “to the public” from discriminating based on “disability, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, or ancestry.” The second, the Communications Clause, prohibits businesses from “display[ing]” a “notice” that “indicates that the full and equal enjoyment of the goods [or] services . . . will be refused, withheld from, or denied an individual or that an individual’s patronage or presence at a place of public accommodation is unwelcome, objectionable, unacceptable, or undesirable” based on a protected characteristic.

Smith brought a pre-enforcement challenge to CADA and sought an injunction halting its enforcements. She alleged that the two provisions violated her free-speech rights because they would require her to create websites for same-sex weddings. The district court ruled against Smith, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed. This appeal followed.

CASE ANALYSIS

This case involves several different free-speech doctrines, and pits them against each other. On the one hand, the compelled-speech doctrine says that the government cannot require individuals to communicate a message they do not wish to communicate. In addition, the general rule against content- and viewpoint-based restrictions says that any government regulation of speech based on the content or the viewpoint of the speech must be narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government interest. (That test is called “strict scrutiny.”)

On the other hand, the conduct-as-speech doctrine allows the government to regulate speech that is incidental to conduct at a lower level of scrutiny (“intermediate scrutiny”), so long as the regulation is not related to the expression of ideas. Moreover, the commercial-speech doctrine allows the government to regulate speech promoting a commercial exchange also at a lower level of scrutiny.

The parties frame their arguments around these competing doctrines.

Smith argues first that CADA compels her to speak in violation of the First Amendment. She says that her wedding websites amount to “pure speech,” and that CADA, by requiring her to create websites for weddings that contradict her beliefs, impermissibly compels her to speak in violation of her free-speech rights.

Smith points to Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, 515 U.S. 557 (1995), in support of her claim. The Court in that case ruled that the First Amendment allowed the organizers of a public parade celebrating Irish heritage to exclude an LGBTQ+ group, even though anti-discrimination law prohibited the organizers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. Smith says that under Hurley when an anti-discrimination law “makes ‘speech itself . . . the public accommodation,’ and forces someone to ‘alter’ their ‘expressive content,’ the government must satisfy strict scrutiny,” which it cannot do here. According to Smith, Hurley applies squarely to her case: “CADA makes an artist’s speech the accommodation, and Colorado’s application of the law to an artist like Smith forces her to alter her expressive content in untenable ways.”

Smith contends that she does not lose her free-speech rights just because she creates speech as part of her business. She says that CADA’s application to her speech is not “incidental” to her conduct; instead, CADA directly regulates her “pure speech.” Moreover, she claims that she is not a “passive conduit” for her client’s messages; instead, she creates the messages herself, and “retains final editorial control over them.” Smith claims this is “[her] speech and her message.”

Smith argues next that CADA’s two provisions impermissibly regulate her speech based on its content and its viewpoint. She says that both provisions require her to promote content and a viewpoint that she finds objectionable—any marriage other than one between one man and one woman. Smith claims that CADA does not serve a compelling interest in enforcing the two provisions, because, while a state may have a general interest in protecting equal access to the marketplace, it has no compelling interest in “ensuring [general] access to a particular person’s unique, artistic product.” Moreover, she contends that CADA is not narrowly tailored, because the state “has numerous, less burdensome alternatives to achieve any legitimate interests it might articulate.” For example, Smith says that “Colorado could interpret CADA to allow speakers who serve all people to decline specific projects based on their message,” it could “enact[] textual exemptions for artists who decline projects based on their messages,” it could exempt services for the “wedding industry,” or it could limit CADA’s reach to “physical spaces.” 

Finally, Smith argues that neither the anti-discrimination context nor the topic of marriage “justifies an exception to th[e] cardinal rule” that government cannot “violate artists’ freedom of conscience or compel them to ‘mouth support for views they find objectionable.’”

The state counters that CADA regulates Smith’s business, not her speech. The state says that a business like 303 Creative can decide for itself what it would like to sell. A business can even define its services quite narrowly, for example, “only websites that include biblical quotes describing marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” But the state contends that once a business decides what to sell, CADA requires the business to sell “to all without regard to a customer’s protected characteristic.” In other words, according to the state, CADA regulates sales, not the services or products sold. And “it does not prohibit or compel the speech of any business.”

Moreover, the state says that CADA does not regulate expressive conduct. According to the state, “[r]outine commercial transactions do not become expressive conduct just because the business believes a sale would convey approval of the buyer.” But to the extent that the Court “needs to consider the content of the Company’s websites to determine whether the Company will deny equal access to its services,” the state says that the case is not yet ripe for judicial review. According to the state, that’s because nobody has asked Smith to create a website for a same-sex marriage (although Smith claims that she received an inquiry), and the state has not required her to create such a website.

The state argues next that even if the Accommodations Clause burdens Smith’s speech, the burden is “incidental,” that is, not related to the expression of Smith’s ideas. As such, the state says that the Clause is subject to a lower level of review, intermediate scrutiny, and easily passes.

But even if the Court were to apply strict scrutiny, the state argues that the Accommodations Clause passes muster. The state claims that it has a compelling interest “in ensuring equal access to publicly available goods and services”—an interest that is “rooted in this nation’s history and traditions, which has long recognized both the material and dignitary harms of the denial of service.” Moreover, the state contends that the Accommodations Clause is narrowly tailored to meet this interest, because “[i]t targets only specific commercial conduct: the discriminatory sale of products and services by businesses open to the public.” The state contends that Smith’s proposed exemptions (which purport to show why CADA is not narrowly tailored) “would upend antidiscrimination law—and other laws too”—by “depart[ing] from this Court’s doctrine and creat[ing] an enforcement regime riddled with uncertainty and inconsistency.”

Finally, as to the Communications Clause, the state argues that “[i]t prohibits only commercial speech that facilitates illegal conduct—expression that receives no free speech protection.” The state says that the Communications Clause does not prohibit Smith from expressing her views; it only prohibits her from advertising that she will deny equal access to her services.

The government weighed in as amicus to support the state. It makes substantially similar arguments.

SIGNIFICANCE

If this case seems familiar, that’s because it is. Ever since states started to recognize same-sex marriages, wedding-service providers have challenged state anti-discrimination laws as violating their rights to free exercise of religion and free speech. The Court famously ruled in one of these cases just four years ago. In Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 584 (U.S.)__ (2018), the Court ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s application of CADA—the same CADA that’s at issue in this case—violated a cakebaker’s free-exercise right to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. The Court held that some of the commissioners’ statements reflected anti-religious animus against the cakebaker, and therefore the Commission’s ruling against the cakebaker violated the Free Exercise Clause.

This case is the fully anticipated follow-up to Masterpiece. But unlike Masterpiece, this case comes to the Court as a free-speech case. (The cake-baker in Masterpiece also raised a free-speech claim, but the Court did not take it up.) It thus gives the Court yet another chance to test individual constitutional rights against a state’s anti-discrimination laws, albeit under a different doctrine.

As a free-speech case, 303 Creative will force the Court to navigate some distinctive landmines with roundly discredited historical antecedents. For example, Smith’s proposed statement echoes and amplifies earlier statements by many commercial establishments that they will not serve individuals of a particular race, ethnicity, or nationality. Similarly, Smith’s proposed exception from anti-discrimination laws echoes and amplifies earlier statements by many commercial establishments and individuals that they have a free-speech or free-association right to discriminate, anti-discrimination laws notwithstanding.

Smith tries to provide the Court with a roadmap through these landmines. She does this by focusing narrowly on her work as an “artist” with a creative message (and not just an ordinary business), who proposes to work in a particular area, weddings, where views can be strong and mixed. It’s not at all clear that Smith’s roadmap actually dodges the landmines, though. As the state contends, her efforts to narrow her case and distinguish her work may simply create confusion and uncertainty as to the application of anti-discrimination law.

This could mean that any ruling for Smith would open the door wide for other exemptions from anti-discrimination laws. For example, even a narrow ruling for Smith could invite other individuals and businesses to cast themselves as “artists,” or define their work as serving a particular market that is inextricably tied up with speech. (It’s easy to see how any variety of individuals and businesses could lodge these claims.) It could also invite individuals and businesses to seek exemptions from anti-discrimination laws for those discredited historical practices, mentioned above. Given the nature of this case (in contrast to Masterpiece, where there was a record of enforcement), there may be no obvious way for the Court to rule for Smith while not effectively drilling a tunnel through anti-discrimination laws.

One final observation. The Court’s jurisprudence in this area—testing First Amendment rights against anti-discrimination laws—seems to treat laws protecting against LGBTQ+ discrimination less favorably than it treats laws protecting against other kinds of discrimination. The Court doesn’t specifically acknowledge this, however, much less provide a principled reason for the difference.

If the Court rules for Smith, it may have to say that quiet part out loud. In other words, it may have to explain why free speech protects Smith’s statements that she won’t create websites for same-sex weddings, even if free speech would not protect her statements that she won’t create websites for, say, Black weddings. Any attempt to explain this difference could prove exceedingly embarrassing (and uncomfortably revealing) for the Court. Yet a ruling for Smith without this explanation will simply invite the next inevitable case, testing whether free-speech protects a business’s announcement that they will not serve Black people.

 

December 2, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ninth Circuit Upholds California's Recall Process

The Ninth Circuit this week rebuffed a challenge to California's recall process. The ruling means that the process stays in place.

The case, Clark v. Weber, arose when a voter who opposed the recall of Governor Newsom argued that the state's recall process violated the Constitution. Under the process, voters first vote whether to recall the official. If a majority votes to recall, the official is recalled. Voters next vote for a replacement (in case the first vote results in a recall). Any candidate for replacement who gets a plurality wins (again, assuming that the first vote results in a recall). The incumbent cannot run as a candidate in that second vote.

Clark argued that the process violated one-person-one-vote, because, as a Newsom supporter, he only had one vote (in the first part of the process), whereas voters who opposed Newsom had two votes. He also argued that an incumbent must receive a majority to stay in office, whereas a challenger needs to get only a plurality.

The court rejected both theories. The court said that California's process is really two separate elections run together, and that everyone gets a vote in both. To the extent that Clark's choices don't include the incumbent in the second election, the court said that this wasn't a severe restriction on the right to vote. (The court analogized the exclusion of the incumbent to term-limit laws, which the courts have upheld). The court said that the state easily justified this restriction based on its important interest in maintaining the efficacy of its recall procedure.

December 2, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Elections and Voting, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Second Circuit Says University Officials Get QI for Revoking Scholarship

The Second Circuit ruled this week that University of Connecticut officials enjoyed qualified immunity from a UConn soccer player's free-speech and due process claims after the officials terminated the player's scholarship for raising her middle finger on camera after a nationally broadcast game. At the same time, the court ruled that there was sufficient evidence to allow the player's Title IX claim to move forward.

The case, Radwan v. Manuel, arose when Noriana Radwan, a UConn soccer player, raised her middle finger on camera after a nationally televised game. UConn officials suspended her from further tournament play and later revoked her one-year scholarship. Radwan sued, arguing that the move violated the First Amendment, due process, and Title IX.

The Second Circuit ruled that UConn officials enjoyed qualified immunity against the free-speech claim, because "the right of a student-athlete at a university, while in public and on the playing field, to make a vulgar or offensive comment or gesture without suffering disciplinary consequences" wasn't clearly established. The court explained:

Although we agree that the Supreme Court has suggested that its analyses in addressing the First Amendment in the public elementary and high school settings (including Hazelwood and Fraser) may not apply equally to the university setting, neither the Supreme Court nor any circuit court has yet provided an alternative legal standard or framework to help university administrators discern the precise constitutional line in such circumstances, especially when the student engages in speech while wearing the university's uniform as part of an extracurricular activity.

As to the due process claim, the court held that a fixed-term athletic scholarship terminable only for cause gave rise to a constitutionally protected property right. But it said that this right wasn't clearly established when officials revoked Radwan's scholarship.

The court ruled for Radwan on her Title IX claim, however, saying that "taken as a whole and construed most favorably to Radwan as the non-moving party, [the evidence] is sufficient to create genuine issues of material fact as to whether Radwan received a more serious disciplinary sanction at UConn because of her gender." That's not a final ruling on the Title IX claim; it only allows the claim to move forward.

December 2, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Procedural Due Process, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Eleventh Circuit Vacates Special Master Order in Mar-A-Lago Docs Case

The Eleventh Circuit yesterday vacated a district court order appointing a special master to review the government's seized documents from Mar-A-Lago. The court also instructed the district court to dismiss the underlying case.

The ruling deals a serious blow to Trump's efforts to stall DOJ review of seized documents. But if history is any guide, we're sure to see some additional efforts to stall.

We last posted here.

The ruling isn't a surprise, given the court's earlier ruling that the district court lacked equitable jurisdiction to appoint the special master to review classified material. In that order, the court ruled that the government hadn't displayed "callous disregard" of Trump's constitutional rights--an essential factor in determining when a court has equitable jurisdiction.

The lack of callous disregard logically also applies to all the documents seized at Mar-A-Lago. (After all, the classified documents and unclassified documents were seized together.) And so the court ruled yesterday that the district court lacked equitable jurisdiction to appoint the special master to review all the documents for this same reason.

December 2, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Jail Policy for Foreign-Born Detainees Violates Equal Protection

The Eighth Circuit ruled this week that a county jail's policy of holding otherwise releasable detainees based on their nation of birth violated equal protection.

The case, Parada v. Anoka County, tested the county jail's policy of holding every otherwise releasable detainee born outside the United States until jail authorities contacted ICE. The wait could last between 20 minutes and 6 hours.

The Eighth Circuit said the policy violated equal protection. That's because it discriminates based on nation of birth, far too rough a cut to satisfy the strict scrutiny standard that applies when government discriminates by national origin. The court noted that the county could have detained persons based on citizenship, instead, a classification that's both neutral with regard to national origin and a closer fit to the county's objectives.

While the court assumed for the purpose of analysis that the county's interest in its policy was "compelling," the court also expressed "doubts about it." It wrote, "Anoka County makes no suggestion it has an interest in stemming the tide of illegal immigration. It instead frames its interest as giving 'ICE an opportunity to investigate the legal status of individuals who [are] already in custody' without 'overburden[ing]' the agency by passing along too many false positives."

December 2, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Equal Protection, Fourteenth Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 1, 2022

SCOTUS to Hear Biden Loan Forgiveness Case

The Supreme Court today agreed to hear a case challenging the Biden Administration's federal student loan forgiveness program. The case comes to the Court on the government's application to vacate the injunction halting the program entered by the Eighth Circuit. We last posted here.

The Court will hear oral argument on the program in February. In the meantime, the Eighth Circuit's injunction stays in place. The Court gave no clue as to its thinking on the merits in its brief order.

December 1, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

No Absolute Immunity for Trump for January 6 Activities

Judge Emmet G. Sullivan (D.D.C.) ruled this week that former President Donald Trump does not have absolute immunity from a civil-damage lawsuit for his behavior related to the insurrection on January 6. The ruling came in an order granting the plaintiffs' motion to file a second amended complaint in a lawsuit against Trump and others for interfering with the electoral count. In other words, it's not a final ruling on the merits; it just means that portions of the case against Trump can move forward.

The court held that Trump's activities leading up to and on January 6 in an effort to disrupt the electoral count were not within the "outer perimeter" of his official duties as president, and therefore, under Nixon v. Fitzgerald, he did not enjoy absolute immunity from civil-damage claims based upon those activities. The court held that Trump's activities were political, not official, because they "entirely concern his efforts to remain in office for a second term."

The this is now the third time that the D.C. district held that Trump's January 6-related activities were outside the scope of his official duties. See Thompson v. Trump (also denying absolute immunity) and United States v. Chrestman (rejecting a defense in a criminal case against a January 6 insurrectionist).

December 1, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 28, 2022

Can the Biden Administration Issue Guidelines that Prioritize Immigration Enforcement?

The Supreme Court will hear oral argument tomorrow in United States v. Texas, the case testing whether the Biden Administration's guidelines that prioritize immigration enforcement violate federal law. Here's my Preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:

Case at a Glance

In September 2021, the Department of Homeland Security issued Guidelines that set priorities for the enforcement of federal immigration law. In particular, the Guidelines prioritized three classes of noncitizens for “apprehension and removal”: (1) noncitizens who pose “a danger to national security,” for example, suspected terrorists; (2) noncitizens who pose a “threat to public safety, typically because of serious criminal conduct”; and (3) noncitizens who pose a “threat to border security,” that is, noncitizens who arrived in the United States after November 1, 2020. DHS set these priorities because Congress has not allocated sufficient resources for the agency to apprehend and remove all removable noncitizens. Texas and Louisiana sued to halt the Guidelines. The district court ruled in their favor and vacated the Guidelines nationwide. The Fifth Circuit and the Supreme Court both declined to stay that ruling pending appeal.

INTRODUCTION

Federal immigration law, by its plain terms, requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to apprehend and remove removable noncitizens in certain circumstances. But given limited resources, DHS must exercise judgment in complying with those requirements. Moreover, the law generally grants executive officers some discretion in how they enforce the law. This case pits federal immigration law against those enforcement realities. But before we even get to the merits, this case raises significant questions over the states’ standing to sue, and whether the district court had authority to vacate the Guidelines nationwide.

ISSUES

  1. Do states have standing to challenge government Guidelines that set priorities for the enforcement of federal immigration law?
  2. Do the federal Guidelines violate the substantive provisions of immigration law?
  3. Did the district court have authority to vacate the Guidelines?

FACTS

In September 2021, the Secretary of Homeland Security issued Guidelines for the Enforcement of Civil Immigration Law (Guidelines). The Guidelines set priorities for the “apprehension and removal” of noncitizens by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The Secretary explained in an accompanying memo (the Considerations Memo) that the Guidelines were necessary because “there are more than 11 million undocumented or otherwise removable noncitizens in the United States,” yet DHS lacked “the resources to apprehend and seek the removal of every one of these noncitizens.” (We refer to the Guidelines and the Considerations Memo together as the “Guidelines” below.) In other words, Congress has allocated just a fraction of the resources that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would need to apprehend and remove every noncitizen who is deportable under the law, and the agency therefore needs to make choices in how it prioritizes enforcement. (The Guidelines apply only to “apprehension and removal.” They do not apply to “detention and release determinations” for noncitizens already in DHS custody.)

The Guidelines prioritize three classes of noncitizens for “apprehension and removal”: (1) noncitizens who pose “a danger to national security,” for example, suspected terrorists; (2) noncitizens who pose a “threat to public safety, typically because of serious criminal conduct”; and (3) noncitizens who pose a “threat to border security,” that is, noncitizens who arrived in the United States after November 1, 2020. In determining whether a noncitizen poses a threat to public safety, the Guidelines call for an assessment based on “the totality of the circumstances,” and not “bright lines or categories.” The Guidelines set “aggravating factors” that weigh in favor of enforcement, including “the gravity of the offense” and the “use of a firearm.” They also set “mitigating factors,” including “tender age” and military service.

The Guidelines, by their own terms, are discretionary. The Guidelines do “not compel an action to be taken or not taken in any particular case.” Instead, they leave “the exercise of prosecutorial discretion to the judgment of” ICE officers. And while they provide for supervisory review of a line-officer’s enforcement decision, the Guidelines do not “create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law by any party in any administrative, civil, or criminal matter.” The Secretary’s Considerations Memo explained that the Guidelines are “consistent with” and “do not purport to override” two statutory provisions that require that certain noncitizens remain in detention during removal proceedings or while awaiting removal.

Texas and Louisiana sued to halt the Guidelines. (The states previously sued to halt earlier versions of the Guidelines. But that case was dismissed when the Secretary issued the final version of the Guidelines in September 2021.) The district court ruled for the states and vacated the Guidelines nationwide. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied a stay of the district court’s order pending appeal. The Court also denied a stay pending appeal, and agreed to hear the case.

CASE ANALYSIS

This case raises three distinct issues. Let’s examine them one at a time.

Standing

Before we even get to the merits, the government argues that the states lack standing to sue, because the states have not suffered a sufficiently direct harm. The government says that the states have alleged only that the Guidelines will require them to spend more on law enforcement and social services. But the government claims that these kinds of indirect harms are never enough for states to sue the government. (If they were, states could sue the government over any number of federal policies and programs.) Moreover, the government asserts that the states lack standing, because, as a general matter, a third party that is not subject to prosecution itself lacks standing to sue the government over its prosecutorial decisions. Finally, the government contends that the Guidelines will not necessarily lead to increased costs for the states, because they only prioritize enforcement given limited resources (and do not cut overall enforcement under limited resources).

The states counter that they have standing, because the Guidelines caused them to “bear costs related to law enforcement, recidivism, healthcare, and education,” as the district court concluded. The states say that this position is not unbounded, as the government contends. Instead, they assert that their position requires states to demonstrate the same standing requirements as other litigants, “albeit with some amount of special solicitude under certain circumstances owing to their unique place in the federal system.” The states contend that the government’s position would upend the Court’s longstanding approach to state standing by making states “disfavored litigants.”

The Guidelines’ Legality

In testing the legality of the Guidelines, two provisions of federal immigration law are principally in play. The first, at 8 U.S.C. § 1226(c), says that DHS “shall take into custody” noncitizens convicted of certain offenses when they are released from criminal custody and “may release” them “only” in limited circumstances. According to DHS, this means that these noncitizens “generally must remain in custody during the pendency of their removal proceedings,” unless their release is authorized by law or court order. But at the same time, DHS and its predecessor agency have consistently interpreted Section 1226(c) to retain the agencies’ “general prosecutorial discretion” to “choose not to pursue removal of such an individual in the first place.”

The second provision, at 8 U.S.C. § 1231(a)(1), says that DHS “shall remove” a noncitizen within 90 days after a final order of removal or other triggering event. Moreover, DHS “shall detain” such noncitizens during the 90-day removal period. “Under no circumstance” shall DHS release a noncitizen who is removable on certain criminal and national-security grounds. According to DHS, such a noncitizen “must remain detained for the duration of the removal period unless release is required to comply with a court order.”

The government argues that the Guidelines do not violate these statutory provisions. As an initial matter, it says that Section 1226(e) bars judicial review of the Guidelines. (Section 1226(e) prohibits review of the Secretary’s “discretionary judgment regarding the application of” Section 1226 and prohibits courts from “set[ting] aside any action or decision . . . regarding the detention or release of any” noncitizen.) It also says that Section 1231(h) precludes courts from requiring the government to comply with Section 1231. (Section 1231(h) reads, “Nothing in [Section 1231] shall be construed to create any substantive or procedural right or benefit that is legally enforceable by any party against the United States . . . .”)

Going to the merits, the government argues that the mandatory language in Sections 1226 and 1231 (“shall take into custody” and “shall detain”) do not override the general principal of law-enforcement discretion. The government says that this conclusion is supported by the context and history of those provisions and by the “longstanding practice spanning multiple Administrations.” According to the government, this conclusion especially holds when, as here, the government faces “perennial constraints on detention capacity.” Moreover, the government asserts that its prioritization was reasonable, and that the government sufficiently explained its reasons (and, contrary to the district court’s findings, adequately considered countervailing factors, like the risk of recidivism by non-prioritized noncitizens and the states’ interests).

Finally, the government argues that the Guidelines do not violate the requirements for notice-and-comment rulemaking under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The government contends that the Guidelines meet the exceptions for “general statements of policy” and rules of agency “practice” or “procedure” under the APA, and therefore do not require notice-and-comment procedures.  

The states counter that Sections 1226 and 1231 contain mandatory language that requires the government to detain nonimmigrants. They say that the Guidelines violate these plain requirements. Moreover, the states contend that the Guidelines are arbitrary and capricious in violation of the APA, because they fail “to consider important aspects of the problems that criminal aliens create, including recidivism and States’ reliance interests” on federal enforcement of immigration law. Finally, they assert that the government failed to comply with notice-and-comment procedures under the APA in issuing the Guidelines. They contend that these procedures are required, because the Guidelines “substantively changed a regulatory regime.”

The District Court’s Vacatur

The government argues first that the district court’s vacatur was improper under 5 U.S.C. § 706(2), a part of the APA that authorizes courts only to “hold unlawful and set aside” agency action. The government says that this provision “merely directs a court to disregard an unlawful agency action in resolving the case before it,” not to nullify or render it void. According to the government, this means that the district court only had authority to grant relief (like an injunction and declaratory relief) to the parties before it, and not to vacate the Guidelines nationwide.

The government argues that even if Section 706(2) authorized the district court’s nationwide vacatur, a provision in federal immigration law, 8 U.S.C. § 1252(f)(1), prohibits that relief in this context. Section 1252(f)(1) prevents courts (except the Supreme Court) from “enjoin[ing] or restrain[ing]” government immigration policies, except as they apply “to an individual alien against whom proceedings . . . have been initiated.” The government claims that the district court’s vacatur violates the plain terms of this provision, because it is not limited to the case of “an individual alien.”

The states counter that neither the APA nor Section 1252(f)(1) prevented the district court from vacating the Guidelines. As to the APA, the states say that the government’s position “that the APA does not authorize vacatur at all ignores text, context, and decades of practice and precedent.” Moreover, they say that Section 1252(f)(1)’s prohibition on court orders that “enjoin or restrain” government policies does not apply to vacatur. They contend that injunctive relief and vacatur “are different remedies with different consequences that require different showings.” For these reasons, the states say that the district court had full authority to vacate the Guidelines.

SIGNIFICANCE

On its face, this case tests whether the mandatory immigration enforcement provisions in federal law are, in fact, mandatory. The plain language of the law, read quite narrowly, seems to require DHS to apprehend and detain noncitizens in certain circumstances. But the broader context and history of the law, along with DHS’s limited resources and the reality of executive discretion in enforcing the law, allow for significant leeway in how DHS implements those provisions. This case tests the former against the latter.

Telescoping out, the case also tests a decades-long history of executive exercise of discretion in the enforcement of immigration law, including the apprehension and detention of deportable noncitizens. Administrations under presidents of both parties have long issued guidelines and priorities for immigration enforcement similar to the Guidelines at issue here. For very practical and immediate reasons, the government has issued guidelines and priorities in order to channel limited resources, which have been perpetually insufficient to apprehend and detain all deportable noncitizens. For only slightly less direct reasons, the government has issued guidelines and priorities in order to ensure fairness in immigration enforcement and to reflect important national interests, sometimes related to foreign affairs and national security. Reading the precise provisions narrowly and literally, and ignoring the broader context and history, as the states would have it, could dispense with the long-running and bipartisan exercise of discretion in immigration enforcement.

Telescoping out once more, this case is just one front in the increasingly partisan battles over immigration. In particular, the case is one among the several efforts that border states and certain Republican state officials are lodging, or have lodged, against immigration policies and practices by Democrats. As an effort in the courts (and not just in ordinary politics), this case raises important questions about the authority and role of the courts in this increasingly partisan arena. For example: Should the courts hear the states’ challenge to federal enforcement priorities when the states’ only harms are secondary, and may not be remedied by judicial relief, anyway? Is it appropriate for a single district court, hand-selected by the plaintiffs, to vacate the Guidelines nationwide?

Notwithstanding the multi-layered underlying issues, however, the case gives the Court several easy exit ramps. For one, the Court could rule that the states lack standing. For another, the Court could rule that the district court lacked authority to vacate the Guidelines nationwide. For a third, the Court could rule that the immigration provisions cited by the states themselves bar courts from halting government policy. Look for those justices who would prefer to stay out of this hot-button political dispute to lean heavily into these issues at oral argument.

 

November 28, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Executive Authority, News, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Does the Honest Services Statute Apply to a Person Who Left Government but Came Back?

The Supreme Court heard oral argument today in Percoco v. United States, the case testing whether the honest services statute applies against a person who left government service, but then returned. Here's my Preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:

Case at a Glance

Joseph Percoco served as the Governor’s Executive Deputy Secretary to then-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. He resigned that office in April 2014 to manage the Governor’s reelection campaign. During this period, he arranged through a lobbyist to receive monetary payments from a corporation in exchange for pressuring state officials to provide funding for the corporation without complying with a potentially expensive labor peace agreement. Percoco succeeded in pressuring officials to drop the requirement right around the time that he returned to his prior position in the Governor’s Office. 

INTRODUCTION

The federal honest-services-fraud statute makes it a crime for a person to communicate over interstate channels any “scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services,” that is, the citizenry’s “intangible” right to honest and impartial government free of corruption. The statute most obviously criminalizes the transmission of any scheme to defraud the government by a public employee. This case tests whether the statute also applies to persons like Percoco, who are not public employees, but who nevertheless exercise some level of government authority and influence and who later return to public office.

ISSUE

Does the federal honest-services-fraud statute apply to persons who are no longer government officials, but who retain some level of government authority and who later return to public office?

FACTS

Starting in 2011, Joseph Percoco served as the Governor’s Executive Deputy Secretary to then-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. In this role, Percoco was one of the most senior officials in the Governor’s Office (also called the “Executive Chamber”), with a portfolio that included a variety of significant public-policy issues.

In mid-April 2014, Percoco resigned his position in the Governor’s Office to manage Governor Cuomo’s reelection campaign. As a result, Percoco did not formally exercise official authority, but he nevertheless continued to use his public office “to conduct state business.” Others around him understood that during this time Percoco’s “grip on power never changed, diminished, or dissipated,” that he “instruct[ed]” the governor’s staff “on various non-campaign topics,” and that and that he “spoke for the governor” on legislative matters.

Around this time (there may be some dispute as to the exact timing), Percoco contacted Todd Howe, a lobbyist, to ask if Howe could help him find a client who could pay him while he was working on the campaign. Howe identified Steven Aiello, whose company, COR Development, sought to obtain funding from Empire State Development (ESD), a state agency, without entering into a potentially expensive labor peace agreement. In July 2014, Aiello e-mailed Howe asking whether “there [is] any way Joe P can help us” to avoid a labor peace agreement “while he is off the 2nd floor [the Governor’s Office] working on the Campaign.”

(This wasn’t the first time that Percoco worked through Howe to execute a bribery scheme. When he was still officially in the Governor’s Office, Percoco worked through Howe to secure a lucrative job for his wife in exchange for Percoco’s assistance in obtaining a power purchase agreement for Competitive Power Venture (CPV), an energy company associated with Howe.)

In early August, COR Development funneled $15,000 through an entity controlled by Howe to Percoco’s wife. Later, in October, after Aiello, Howe, and Percoco exchanged e-mails about the labor peace agreement, COR Development funneled an additional $20,000 through Howe to Percoco’s wife.

Around the same time, Percoco separately told Howe and a bank that he planned to return to Governor Cuomo’s administration after the election. On November 25, after Governor Cuomo won reelection, Percoco signed forms related to his reinstatement. On December 1, he executed those forms before a notary.

On December 3, Aiello’s partner, Joseph Gerardi, pressured Howe by e-mail to resolve the labor peace agreement issue. Howe forwarded the e-mail to Percoco, who then called the Deputy Director of State Operations, the official responsible for overseeing ESD, and told him that the project should move forward without a labor peace agreement. The Deputy Director understood Percoco’s instruction as “pressure” from his “principal[],” a “senior staff member[].” The Deputy Director then directed senor officials at ESD “that a labor peace agreement . . . should not be required as part of this project.” The next day, ESD officials informed COR Development of the decision.

On December 8, Percoco formally resumed his prior position in the Governor’s Office. He instructed officials to prioritize the release to funds owed to COR Development and secured an additional raise for Aiello’s son, who worked in the Executive Chamber.

In 2017, Percoco was charged in federal court with two counts of conspiring to commit honest-services wire fraud, two counts of soliciting bribes and gratuities, and three counts of Hobbs Act extortion. (Aiello, Gerardi, and others were charged with these and other crimes, too.)

After trial, the court instructed the jury that the government had to prove that Percoco owed a duty of honest services to the public in order to convict Percoco on the honest-services charges. The court told the jury that Percoco owed such a duty “[w]hile [he] was employed by the state . . . by virtue of his official position.” The court also explained that the jury could find that Percoco owed a duty of honest services to the public even “when he was not a state employee if you find that at the time he owed the public a fiduciary duty.” The court told the jury that they could find that Percoco owed a fiduciary duty if they determined (1) that he “dominated and controlled any governmental business” and (2) that “people working in the government actually relied on him because of a special relationship he had with the government.”

The jury found Percoco guilty of conspiring to commit honest-services wire fraud related to the COR Development scheme. (The jury also found him guilty on charges of honest-services fraud and solicitation of bribes or gratuities in the other bribery scheme, mentioned parenthetically above. The jury acquitted him on the other counts. Aiello was convicted of conspiring to commit honest-services wire fraud related to the COR Development scheme and acquitted on other counts.) The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed. This appeal followed.

CASE ANALYSIS

In order to see the parties’ arguments more clearly, let’s take a look at a little history. Before 1987, the federal wire- and mail-fraud statutes prohibited any scheme to defraud the government. The prohibition plainly applied to public officers who were formally employed by the government who corruptly defrauded the government of money or property. But at the time, all federal courts of appeals interpreted these statutes to prohibit honest-services fraud, too. In other words, the courts of appeals said that the statute also prohibited any scheme to defraud the government of the citizenry’s “intangible” right to honest and impartial government, regardless of whether the scheme directly involved government money or property.

As a result, in some cases the statutes applied to certain private citizens, too. In particular, they applied to those private citizens who were so closely aligned with the government that they could defraud the government of the citizenry’s intangible right to honest and impartial government. For example, as relevant here, the Second Circuit in United States v. Margiotta noted that “[i]t requires little imaginative leap to conclude that individuals who in reality or effect are the government owe a fiduciary duty to the citizenry,” just as much as public employees. The court looked to common law and New York law to determine whether the prohibition applied to a particular private person and ultimately concluded that “the concepts of reliance, and de facto control and dominance” are “at the heart of the fiduciary relationship.” United States v. Margiotta, 688 F.2d 108 (2d Cir. 1982).

Then, in 1987, the Supreme Court interpreted the mail-fraud statute “as limited in scope to the protection of property rights.” McNally v. United States, 483 U.S. 350 (1987). The Court in McNally reversed a Sixth Circuit ruling that, relying on Margiotta, held that “an individual without formal office” was a “public fiduciary,” because he “substantially participated in government affairs and exercised significant, if not exclusive, control” of certain government decisions. The ruling meant that the wire-fraud statute no longer applied to protect the “intangible” right to honest services.

Congress responded the next year by enacting Section 1346, the honest-services-fraud statute at issue in this case. Section 1346 defined the “scheme or artifice” in the wire-fraud statute to “include[] a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” 18 U.S.C. § 1346. In other words, Congress effectively overruled McNally.

But while Congress specifically included the “right of honest services” in Section 1346, it didn’t necessarily revive all pre-McNally caselaw in the circuits. In particular, Section 1346 didn’t obviously revive Margiotta and its holding that the fraud statutes applied to certain private persons. The Second Circuit ruled that it did, however, and upheld Prococo’s conviction on that basis.

Percoco argues first that Margiotta was wrong on its own terms. He says that “[u]nlike public officials, private citizens owe no fiduciary duty to act in the public interest,” because they “exercise no authority on [the government’s] behalf.” He contends that the whole idea of a republican government “is that private citizens and factions will advance their own parochial self-interests,” and that they cannot be bound by honest-services restrictions in the public sector. (Percoco claims that Margiotta’s reasoning doesn’t make sense in the private sector, either, where “[f]iduciary obligations arise from legal relationships (usually principal-agent), not from one party’s unilateral reliance on another,” as Margiotta would have it.)

Percoco argues next that Margiotta cannot survive the Court’s most recent rulings on government corruption statutes. He says that these most recent cases narrow the law and reinstate only the “core” of the pre-McNally caselaw to “paradigmatic cases of bribes and kickbacks” and “the sale of official authority.” He says that these simply don’t apply to private citizens.

Finally, Percoco argues that Margiotta raises “serious constitutional concerns.” He claims that the ruling threatens private persons’ First Amendment freedoms, potentially outlawing ordinary political advocacy and lobbying by private persons and even family members of government officials. Moreover, he says that the ruling “improperly puts federal courts in the position of regulating how private citizens interact with the government and its officials,” interfering with “this fundamental aspect of state sovereignty.” And finally, he contends that Margiotta’s approach is so vague that it “deprives citizens of the notice to which they are constitutionally entitled.”

For all of these reasons, Percoco argues that the honest-services-fraud statute cannot apply to him, because he was not a government official at the time of his actions.

The government counters that the honest-services-fraud statute can extend to certain private persons like Percoco. The government points to the plain language of the statute and its history (as described above) to say that the statute bans any “scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services,” whether performed by a government officer or not. The government contends that the Court’s most recent cases support its position.

The government argues next that other federal statutes support its position, too. In particular, the government points to federal public bribery statutes that apply to private persons. The government says that Court interpretation of these statutes support its position that the honest-services-fraud statute applies to private persons, too. According to the government, that’s because “a person who is not a formal employee or agent of a government can still owe a duty of honest services . . . when the person has been selected to work for the government, or when the person actually exercises the powers of a government position with the acquiescence of the relevant government personnel.”

The government argues that Percoco easily fits within these principles. It says that at the time of the scheme, Percoco “was both (1) slated to return as the Executive Deputy Secretary, and (2) acting as a functional public official . . . .” The government contends that “[e]ither basis alone is sufficient to support his conviction.”

Finally, the government argues that the application of Section 1346 to persons like Percoco raises no constitutional issues. The government points out that Section 1346 contains a mens rea (or guilty mind) requirement, like the bribery statutes, and therefore provides fair notice. Moreover, it says that this application of Section 1346 raises no First Amendment concerns, “because lobbyists, family members, and the like are neither incoming nor functional government officials, as [Percoco] was.” Finally, the government contends that this application of Section 1346 does not interfere with state sovereignty, because “even assuming a violation of state law were required for [Percoco’s] conviction [under Section 1346], state bribery and ethics laws do not suggest that [Percoco’s] conduct was permissible.”

SIGNIFICANCE

As the parties point out, the Court in the last twelve years or so has circumscribed the reach Section 1346 and a similar bribery statute. In particular, in Skilling v. United States, the Court limited Section 1346 to bribery and kick-back schemes. 561 U.S. 358 (2010). More recently, in McDonnell v. United States, the Court held that an “official action” under the federal bribery statute is an action that involves a specific exercise of formal government power. 579 U.S. 550 (2016).

But while those rulings circumscribe the statutes, neither ruling squarely addresses the issue in this case, whether the honest-services-fraud statute applies to private persons.

Given the number and types of private persons who effectively control government decision-making in one way or another, this issue matters. Percoco’s case is a perfect illustration why. On the one hand, if Section 1346 applies only to government officials—and does not apply to Percoco and those like him (with very close relationships to the government)—this could sharply limit the statute’s reach and allow more government corruption, as in Percoco’s case itself. At the extreme, this could invite individuals to skirt criminal liability simply by formally severing their relationship with the government, even as they maintain a very close practical relationship with the government and effective control over government decision-making. On the other hand, if Section 1346 applies to Percoco and those like him, this could prevent and punish more corruption, again, as in Percoco’s case itself.

The case is therefore likely to come down to line-drawing. A bright-line rule that applies Section 1346 only to government officials has the benefits of determinacy, certainty, and easy applicability in the courts, even if it also has a relatively limited reach. A more nuanced rule that applies Section 1346 to certain private persons who effectively wield government power is necessarily less determinate and certain, and harder to apply in the courts, even if it also comes with relatively broader reach.

Percoco picks up on this and claims that any attempt to apply Section 1346 to anyone other than a government employee risks criminalizing historically protected activity like ordinary political advocacy and lobbying. (Percoco’s case is easily distinguishable from ordinary political advocacy and lobbying. He’s hardly the best messenger for this slippery-slope argument, to say the least.) While the Second Circuit thinks it developed a sufficiently determinate test in Margiotta to prevent this problem, look for the Supreme Court to be skeptical. And look for it to lean toward a bright-line rule in which Section 1346 applies only to government employees.

November 28, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Trump Replies in Special Master Case

Former President Trump filed his brief in the Eleventh Circuit case testing whether a district judge had authority to appoint a special master to review documents seized at Mar-A-Lago. Trump's arguments are familiar, largely already rejected, and unpersuasive.

A short history might help contextualize this:

Two weeks after the FBI seized documents that Trump illegally removed from the White House, transported to his private residence, and illegally stored there, Trump sued, seeking (extraordinary) "judicial oversight" of the government's review of the documents. A district judge appointed a special master to conduct that review. The government filed a notice of appeal and moved the district court for a partial stay of its order as it applied to documents bearing classified markings. The district court rejected the motion, but the Eleventh Circuit reversed. The Eleventh Circuit held that the government was likely to prevail, because everyone agreed that the search did not display a callous disregard for Trump's constitutional rights--"the foremost consideration" in determining whether the district court properly exercised jurisdiction in appointing the special master in the first place. The Supreme Court declined to vacate that ruling.

The Eleventh Circuit ruling went to the government's motion for a partial stay as the district court's order applied to classified documents. But the court's reasoning--that last part, that everyone agreed that the search (of all the documents, not just the classified documents) didn't display a callous disregard for Trump's constitutional rights--gave the government an opening to argue that the district court's original appointment of a special master was completely invalid. The government then argued (1) that the court lacked authority to appoint the special master at all, and (2) that the court lacked authority to stop the government from reviewing the documents pending the outcome of the special master review.

Trump's brief responds to the government's arguments. On the merits of the district court's appointment of the special master, Trump argues that the government's lack of callous disregard of his rights is not determinative, and that other equitable factors weigh in favor of the court's authority. As to the district court's order halting government review pending special master review, Trump argues that he's likely to succeed on the merits, because some of the documents are his, some are protected by privilege, and he automatically declassified any documents marked "classified" simply by treating them as unclassified documents. (He says that as president he had authority to declassify, and therefore he could declassify simply by thinking it).

Trump's arguments mostly rehash his claims that the courts have already flatly rejected. (Maybe that's why the court set oral argument for next Tuesday: easy case, easy ruling.) The brief--and Trump's entire case, from his original complaint--is simply an effort to drag out and frustrate the FBI's investigation, and even run the clock.

November 16, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Executive Authority, News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 14, 2022

Eighth Circuit Halts Education Debt Forgiveness Program Pending Appeal

The Eighth Circuit granted a motion to stop the Biden Administration from implementing its student-debt forgiveness program pending appeal. The court just a few weeks ago granted an emergency motion for an administrative stay, to the same effect.

The ruling halts implementation of the program nationwide during the state's appeal. It's another setback for the loan-forgiveness program in the courts.

The court said, contrary to the district court, that the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority had standing as a state agency, or, if not, because of "MOHELA's financial obligations to the State treasury, the challenged student loan debt cancellation presents a threatened financial harm to the State of Missouri." Moreover, "the equities strongly favor an injunction considering the irreversible impact the Secretary's debt forgiveness action would have as compared to the lack of harm an injunction would presently impose."

The court said that it couldn't limit an injunction to the plaintiff states, however, because MOHELA services loans nationwide, and because "tailoring an injunction to address the alleged harms to the remaining States would entail delving into complex issues and contested facts that would make any limits uncertain in their application and effectiveness."

November 14, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

District Court Rules ACA Ban on Sex Discrimination Doesn't Include Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity

Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk (N.D. Tex.) ruled that the ban on sex discrimination in the Affordable Care Act doesn't include a ban on discrimination by sexual orientation or gender identity. The ruling concludes that HHS regulations that ban discrimination by sexual orientation and gender identity are unlawful.

The case, Neese v. Becerra, tests HHS regulations against the ACA. The ACA prohibits discrimination "on the ground prohibited under . . . Title IX . . . ." Title IX, in turn, prohibits discrimination "on the basis of sex." HHS interpreted this to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and issued regs prohibiting such discrimination under the ACA.

The court ruled the ACA's ban on discrimination wasn't that capacious. The court said that Title IX's plain language, along with its broader objectives, means that sexual orientation and gender identity are not part of "sex" discrimination under that statute. And therefore they're not a part of "sex" discrimination under the ACA, either.

The court distinguished Bostock v. Clayton County. The Supreme Court in that case held that Title VII's ban on discrimination "because of sex" included a bans on sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. But the district court said that Bostock only applied to Title VII, not other anti-sex-discrimination statutes, and that differences between Title VII and Title IX meant that Title IX didn't include bans on sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination.

November 14, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Gender, News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 11, 2022

Trump Sues to Halt January 6 Committee Subpoena, surprising nobody

As expected, former President Trump sued on Friday to stop the January 6's Committee's subpoena for his testimony and documents.

Trump objects to the subpoena on several grounds:

[T]he Committee did not issue the Subpoena to further a valid legislative purpose; the Subpoena is unwarranted because other sources can provide the information the Subpoena seeks; the Subpoena is broader than reasonably necessary; the Subpoena infringes on executive privilege; the Subpoena infringes President Trump's First Amendment rights; the Committee is not duly authorized; and the Committee lacks authority to issue subpoenas.

Just to be clear: These grounds are entirely spurious. Some are flat wrong, factually or legally or both. Others have been roundly rejected in the courts. Again and again. Still, Trump raises them.

For example, Trump argues that a former president is absolutely immune from compelled testimony. But his best source for this is a letter that President Truman wrote in response to a subpoena by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Every other authority he cites speaks to current, not former, presidents. The difference matters: the reason for the president's absolute immunity (if such immunity exists) is that Congress, by compelling testimony, could frustrate the current president's exercise of their Article II responsibilities (by taking the president away from their job), and thus undermine the separation of powers. This reason applies with far less force, if at all, to a former president. The reason's simple: a former president is no longer exercising Article II responsibilities. In any event, neither OLC nor the Supreme Court has definitively extended absolute immunity from compelled congressional testimony to a former president. And Congress obviously thinks it has the power. That counts for something.

Trump also argues that the subpoena doesn't serve a legitimate legislative purpose. This is a familiar trope in Trump team litigation. And it's failed consistently in the courts, including in court challenges to the January 6 Committee's authority.

The strategy--the same as always--is clear: Trump's trying to run the clock in hopes that the subpoena (and the entire Committee) go away with a new Republican Congress. Or, if not, stall in the courts as long as possible.

November 11, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Justice Sotomayor Declines to Halt NYC Public Employee Vaccine Mandate

Justice Sotomayor, as Second Circuit justice, denied an emergency application to halt New York City's vaccine mandate for public employees, pending appeal.

The denial came without explanation. That's not unusual for this kind of thing.

A group called New Yorkers for Religious Liberty filed the application. It argued that the City's enforcement of the vaccine mandate violate the Free Exercise Clause. In particular, the group maintained that the City had too much discretion in granting religious exemptions, that the City "play[ed] denominational favorites" and made other arbitrary decisions regarding exemptions, and that "[t]he City uses its executive discretion to prefer secular conduct that undermines the government's asserted interest in similar ways as non-exempted religious conduct."

The arguments looked to exploit holes in the Smith test, which applies rational basis review to government actions that are neutral with regard to religion and generally applicable. The Court in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission held that statements by commissioners reflected anti-religious animus, and therefore the Commission failed to apply Colorado's anti-discrimination law in a way that was neutral with regard to religion. More recently, in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the Court ruled that the City's discretion in enforcing anti-discrimination law made it not generally applicable. The two rulings significantly chipped away at Smith, even if the Court (so far) has declined to outright overrule Smith.

The group's arguments in its emergency application are in the same spirit--that the City enforces the otherwise neutral and generally applicable vaccine mandate in a way that discriminates against certain religious beliefs, or leaves too much discretion in the hands of City officials who can grant exemptions.

Justice Sotomayor's denial follows two Court rulings earlier this year, one rejecting a Biden Administration effort to impose a vaccine mandate on employees of large employers and another one upholding a Biden Administration move to require facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding to ensure that their employees are vaccinated. Those rulings turned on the Administration's authority to adopt those rules, however, and not the Free Exercise Clause.

November 11, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Free Exercise Clause, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Judge Strikes Biden Student Loan Forgiveness

Judge Mark T. Pittman (N.D. Tex.) ruled that the Biden Administration's student-loan forgiveness program is unconstitutional. The Administration already said that it'd appeal.

Recall that the Eighth Circuit previously temporarily halted the program pending an appeal. At the same time, the Supreme Court declined to temporarily halt the program in a different case.

Judge Pittman's ruling is different than these, in that it isn't temporary. Instead, it "vacates" the program in its entirety.

The court ruled that the program violated the newly discovered major questions doctrine. The court said that the program involved a matter of "vast 'economic and political significance'" (because it'll "cost more than $400 billion"), yet Congress hadn't clearly authorized it in the HEROES Act. Under West Virginia v. EPA's major questions doctrine, the court said that the program is therefore unconstitutional.

That's striking, given that the HEROES Act plainly authorizes the Secretary of Education to "waive or modify" federal student loans "as the Secretary deems necessary in connection with a war or other military operation or national emergency." ("The term 'national emergency' means a national emergency declared by the President of the United States.") It's striking, too, because, unlike the West Virginia case, the Administration's action here doesn't impose a regulatory scheme. If the major questions doctrine reaches this program, it'll likely reach a whole lot of other programs that we might not necessarily have expected under West Virginia, too--programs where the president has statutory authority to declare an "emergency," or where an administration takes non-regulatory action. (And remember: the Court hasn't defined "economic and political significance." So we don't know how or whether that limiting principle would apply.)

The ruling is striking at an even more basic level, on standing. Under the standing rule, a plaintiff, in order to get into federal court, has to plausibly plead (1) that they've suffered a harm, (2) that the defendant's action caused the harm, and (3) that the plaintiff's requested relief will redress the harm. Here, the plaintiffs in the case didn't qualify for the full forgiveness. That was their "harm" for standing purposes. And they connected that harm to the forgiveness program, demonstrating causation.

Yet they asked the court to vacate the entire program (as opposed to remand to the Department to fix it so that they'd qualify). The court obliged, and, as a result, they (still) don't get forgiveness (and neither does anyone else). This seems counterproductive, at best, as a practical matter. But it also seems to play fast and loose with the third standing requirement, that the requested relief must redress the harm.

November 11, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Second Circuit Sends Measles Vaccine Mandate Case Back for Trial

The Second Circuit ruled that a district court improperly granted summary judgment to the Rockland County Department of Health (NY) and its officials in a claim by parents of minor children that the Department's order excluding unvaccinated children from school violated their right to free exercise of religion.

The ruling means that the district court must hold a trial to resolve disputed facts surrounding the claim before ruling on the free exercise issue.

The case, M.A. v. Rockland County Department of Health, arose when the Department excluded children who were not vaccinated against measles from attending school. The Department issued the order in response to a measles outbreak.

Parents sued, arguing that the order violated free exercise, among other things. The district court ruled that the order was neutral with regard to religion and generally applicable. It applied Smith's rational basis review and granted summary judgment to the district.

The Second Circuit reversed. The court said there were facts in dispute as to the order's neutrality and general applicability that made the case inappropriate for summary judgment.

While a reasonable juror could conclude that [a Department official's] statements [about individuals who oppose vaccines] evinced religious animus, rendering the Declaration not neutral, a reasonable juror could also conclude the opposite. Similarly, there are disputes of fact regarding whether the Declaration, in practice, primarily affected children of religious objectors or whether there was a sizable population of children who were unvaccinated for a variety of non-medical and non-religious reasons. There are also disputes as to whether the County's purpose in issuing the Declaration was to stop the spread of measles or to encourage vaccination. Given these fact-intensive issues, the district court's grant of summary judgment on the Plaintiffs' Free Exercise Claim was erroneous.

The case now goes back to the district court for a trial on these questions.

November 10, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sixth Circuit Says No Right to Record Police Misconduct Investigations

The Sixth Circuit ruled this week that the First Amendment doesn't protect a right to record police misconduct investigations.

The case, Hils v. Davis, arose when the president of the police union sought to record Citizen Complaint Authority interviews of an officer in a police-misconduct investigation. The union president alleged that the Authority wasn't recording the entire interviews, so he sought to fill the gaps. The Authority prevented him from recording, and he sued.

The court examined the "many potential ways to think about this claim," including text and history of the First Amendment, precedent involving press access to public proceedings, government-employee speech, and forum analysis. It rejected the claims under them all. The fundamental problem according to the court: Authority interviews are part of non-public government investigations. The court said that the Authority has a legitimate interest in keeping the interviews under wraps while the investigation is pending, and that interviewees have other ways of voicing their concerns that the Authority is selectively recording the interviews: Say so.

November 10, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fifth Circuit Rebuffs Tanning Business Case Against COVID Shutdown

The Fifth Circuit rejected claims by a tanning business that COVID shutdowns violated its equal protection rights and amounted to an uncompensated taking.

The case, Golden Glow Tanning Salon v. City of Columbus, Mississippi, arose when Columbus ordered a seven-week shutdown of certain businesses in the early days of the COVID pandemic. Golden Glow sued, arguing that the shutdown violated equal protection and constituted an uncompensated taking.

The Fifth Circuit rejected both claims. The court applied rational basis review to Golden Glow's equal protection claim, and concluded that Columbus's action was reasonable, even if a little both over- and underinclusive. As to takings, the court rejected Golden Glow's claim that the shutdown effected a per se taking, because Golden Glow failed to demonstrate that the shutdown "rendered the entire property 'valueless.'"

Judge Ho concurred, and pitched a case for the right to earn a living as a fundamental right. Judge Ho argued that the right "to pursue callings" has even better historical foundations than other unenumerated fundamental rights.

November 10, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Equal Protection, News, Opinion Analysis, Takings Clause | Permalink | Comments (0)

Government, House File Arguments in Trump Tax Case

The solicitor general and the House today filed separate oppositions to former President Trump's emergency application to the Supreme Court for a stay of the lower court's ruling that Treasury must turn over Trump's taxes to the House Committee on Ways and Means.

The filings follow the Court's temporary stay and super-fast briefing schedule in the case. (The Court's temporary stay prevents Treasury from turning over the taxes until it resolves Trump's emergency application.)

Both briefs argued that the lower court got it right--that the Committee has a legitimate legislative purpose for requesting the taxes, and that the Committee's request doesn't violate the separation of powers.

The Committee brief added that the Court should rule quickly, because time's running out on this Congress, and (implicitly) that delays will simply play into Trump's run-the-clock strategy, should the Republicans take the House: "Delaying Treasury from providing the requested tax information would leave the Committee and Congress as a whole little or no time to complete their legislative work during this Congress, which is quickly approaching its end."

The Committee also added that a ruling for Trump would undermine Congress's authority more generally:

The "power of inquiry--with process to enforce it--is an essential and appropriate auxiliary to the legislative function." And more recently, this Court in Mazars confirmed that "[l]egislative inquiries might involve the President in appropriate cases" and rejected an approach that gave "short shrift to Congress's important interests in conducting inquiries to obtain the information it needs to legislative effectively." To rule for the Trump parties on the merits would disregard those important Congressional interests and "risk seriously impeding Congress in carrying out its responsibilities" by preventing Congress from completing any investigation involving a former President whenever there are allegations that the investigation was politically motivated.

Next move's for the Court.

November 10, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 7, 2022

Can Plaintiffs Sue to Enforce Conditions in Spending Clause Legislation?

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Tuesday in Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County v. Talevski. The case tests whether a state-owned nursing-home resident can sue under Section 1983 for violations of standards of care that the state must satisfy in order to receive Medicaid funding. Here's my Preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:

FACTS

In January 2016, Gorgi Talevski entered Valparaiso Care and Rehabilitation (VCR), a government-owned nursing home, after his family determined that he needed professional care for his dementia. Shortly after he moved to VCR, Gorgi’s condition deteriorated rapidly. He lost his abilities to feed himself and to communicate in English (instead speaking only in his native Macedonian), among other cognitive and physical functions that he exhibited upon entering VCR.

Gorgi’s family discovered that VCR had been prescribing six powerful psychotropic drugs as part of his regimen. (VCR says that they prescribed drugs, including these six and others, in order “to arrest his decline and ameliorate his behavior.” In particular, VCR claims that Gorgi “repeatedly acted in a violent and sexually aggressive manner toward members of VCR’s staff and female residents.”) Gorgi’s family filed a grievance with the Indiana State Department of Health and hired a private neurologist, who ordered the drugs stopped. Gorgi’s condition improved, and he could feed himself again. (VCR contends that Gorgi’s aggressive behavior did not improve, however.)

During the same period, VCR temporarily transferred Gorgi two or more times to an all-male facility about an hour-and-a-half away. (Gorgi returned to VCR in between the temporary transfers.) Around December 2016, a physician at the second facility determined that Gorgi should not return to VCR. So VCR transferred Gorgi through an involuntary discharge to a dementia facility in Indianapolis.

Gorgi’s family filed a grievance with the Indiana State Department of Health. A state administrative law judge ruled that VCR violated Gorgi’s discharge rights. But the only relief available was readmittance to VCR. Fearing that VCR would retaliate against him, Gorgi’s family moved him to another nursing home.

Gorgi’s wife, Ivanka Talevski, sued VCR on Gorgi’s behalf. She alleged that VCR wrongfully used chemical restraints on Gorgi and impermissibly transferred him in violation of the Federal Nursing Home Reform Act (FNHRA). The district court ruled in favor of VCR, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed. This appeal followed.

CASE ANALYSIS

Congress enacted the FNHRA to establish minimum standards of care that nursing homes must meet in order to qualify for federal Medicaid funding. The FNHRA sets certain rules for nursing-home facilities, and it sets certain “[r]equirements relating to residents’ rights.” In return for receiving federal Medicaid funds, state nursing-home facilities must comply with these rules and respect these rights.

Two of those rights are at issue here. The first one protects nursing-home residents against “chemical restraints imposed for purposes of discipline or convenience and not required to treat the resident’s medical symptoms,” except “to ensure the physical safety of the resident or other residents” and only under specific physician instructions. 42 U.S.C. § 1396r(c)(1)(A). The second one prohibits a nursing home from transferring a resident unless “the safety of individuals in the facility is endangered,” among other specified exceptions. 42 U.S.C. § 1396r(c)(2).

But just because the FNHRA establishes those rights, a nursing-home resident cannot necessarily sue to enforce them. That’s because the FNHRA is a federal spending program; it sets conditions for states on the receipt of federal funds (in this case Medicaid funds). In that way, the FNHRA, like other spending programs, creates benefits and obligations between the federal government and the states. While the FNHRA sets standards for the benefit of nursing home patients, the question is whether those patients can sue to enforce those rights. (Just a quick technical note, with important implications: individuals sue to enforce federal rights under another statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, or just “Section 1983.” That law, first enacted in 1871, authorizes individuals to sue defendants who are acting “under color of law” for violating their rights under the Constitution or federal law. We’ll hear the parties reference Section 1983 throughout the oral argument.)

Under Court precedent, a person can sue to enforce rights created by a federal spending program only when that program has certain characteristics. In particular, Congress must have intended that the program, or a provision in it, benefits the plaintiff; the rights can’t be “vague and amorphous” so as to “strain judicial competence”; and the program “must unambiguously impose a binding obligation on the States.” Blessing v. Freestone, 550 U.S. 329 (1997). All this means that a plaintiff must demonstrate that a federal spending program unambiguously creates an individual right that protects the plaintiff. Gonzaga University v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273 (2002). That’s a high bar, and the Court hasn’t found that a federal spending program created an individually enforceable right since 1990.

Against this backdrop, VCR argues first that congressional spending programs do not create enforceable rights under Section 1983 at all. VCR says that Congress enacted Section 1983 with common-law contractual principles in mind. According to VCR, those principles preclude “third parties” from enforcing contracts. If a federal spending program is a contract between the federal government and a state, this means that an individual who is not a party to the contract (like a nursing home resident) can’t sue to enforce that contract, even if the contract protects them. VCR claims that this is also consistent with separation-of-powers and federalism principles in our Constitution. Finally, it contends that the Court itself has effectively recognized this in its most recent decisions, which, according to VCR, call into question whether congressional spending programs give rise to Section 1983 claims. VCR asserts that the Court should overrule its cases to the contrary.

But even if the Court continues to hold that certain federal spending programs allow Section 1983 claims, VCR argues that the FNHRA doesn’t. VCR says that Congress has created “more than sufficient [other] individualized remedies” for nursing-home residents “to foreclose resort to Section 1983.” Moreover, it claims that the two rights asserted by Talevski “come nowhere close to meeting the stringent criteria” in Blessing and Gonzaga.

Talevski counters that congressional spending programs like the FNHRA can create rights, and that the plain text of Section 1983 authorizes individual lawsuits to enforce them. Talevski says that the text, context, and purpose of Section 1983 all support this conclusion. He also claims that the Court’s precedents and specific congressional ratification of those precedents support this conclusion. Talevski asserts that these sources should guide the Court’s ruling, not the common law of contracts in the 1870s. But even if the common law of contracts governs, Talevski says that “the prevailing rule in this country in the early 1870s was that third parties could sue to enforce contracts for their benefits,” and so Section 1983 authorizes lawsuits to enforce rights in federal spending programs even under VCR’s historical argument.

Talevski argues next that Congress clearly intended to allow individual lawsuits to enforce the FNHRA’s rights against chemical restraint and involuntary discharge. He says that the FNHRA’s text, structure, history, and purpose all support this conclusion. For example, he points out that the FNHRA repeatedly refers to residents’ “rights,” that the FNHRA specifically describes them as “legal rights,” and that the FNHRA rights pass to a resident’s guardian if the resident becomes incompetent. Talevski also points out that the FNHRA rights are part of a “bill of rights” that are provided orally and in writing to each resident. He claims that these rights are “fundamental” for nursing home residents, who “are among the most vulnerable individuals in our society.”

Finally, Talevski argues that the FNHRA offers no other federal mechanism for residents to hold nursing homes accountable for individual rights violations. He says that before the FNHRA these rights were secured only by regulation, and that Congress would have no reason to enact the FNHRA if regulatory enforcement sufficed. Moreover, he points out that the FNHRA “explicitly preserves access to other federal remedies outside FNHRA,” including Section 1983 actions.

The government weighed in as amicus to argue that congressional spending programs can create rights that are enforceable through Section 1983 actions. In particular, the government argues that VCR is wrong to argue that common-law contract principles should govern the Court’s interpretation of Section 1983, and that the Court should not overturn its precedents authorizing Section 1983 suits to enforce spending program rights.

But at the same time the government argues that Section 1983 is not available to protect the rights in the FNHRA. The government says that the vast majority of nursing-home residents live in private nursing homes that are not covered by the FNHRA; that Congress provided only administrative oversight and enforcement for those nursing homes; and that Congress could not have intended to create an additional and potentially conflicting enforcement mechanism (through Section 1983 lawsuits) for the small percentage of public nursing-home residents.

 

SIGNIFICANCE

The first question in this case—whether a plaintiff can sue under Section 1983 to enforce rights provided in federal spending programs—could impact the ability of millions of participants in those programs to enforce their rights in court. In particular, if the Court overrules its precedents—or lets those precedents die on the vine—participants in core social-safety-net programs like Medicaid, Medicare, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Family, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Program will not be able to sue in court to enforce their rights under those programs. Because the federal government cannot enforce rights in every instance, and because the government only reluctantly withholds federal funds for noncomplying states, this would leave millions of participants at the whim of state legislatures and state officials who administer the programs—and who too often have little regard for participants’ rights.

But even if the Court stops short on the first question, the second question could have a similarly significant impact, but for a smaller population. If the Court rules that nursing-home residents cannot sue under Section 1983 to enforce their rights under the FNHRA, those residents could only rely on administrative mechanisms and, ultimately, revocation of Medicaid funds to enforce their rights. But the federal government cannot enforce FNHRA rights in every case, and it’s loath to revoke funds when states don’t comply with the Act (because such a move would ultimately hurt nursing-home residents even more).

All that said, the Court has not authorized a Section 1983 lawsuit to enforce rights in a federal spending program since 1990. For this Court, that may cut in favor of overruling precedent—either actually or practically—that allows such suits. (As we saw this Summer, this Court is not shy about expressly overruling well-settled precedent, or acknowledging that well-settled precedent has effectively withered away.) And VCR’s historical argument (on the common-law of contracts) is pitch-perfect for this Court and its newly revitalized historical approach. (That’s not to say that VCR’s argument is right. As several amici point out, it’s not. But the Court’s newly revitalized historical approach only concerns itself with “the historical record compiled by the parties” in litigation, not (necessarily) the actual historical understanding of a particular area of law. New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen, 597 U.S. ___ (2022).) All this means that the case is ripe for this Court to restrict or even overturn its precedents allowing Section 1983 claims to enforce rights in federal spending programs.

November 7, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, News | Permalink | Comments (0)