Friday, September 8, 2023
The Fifth Circuit temporarily stayed an earlier order by a district court that required Texas Governor Greg Abbott to remove the Rio Grande border barrier. The brief appellate court order didn't say anything about the merits. The ruling means that the border barrier stays in place pending further litigation.
Wednesday, September 6, 2023
Six Colorado voters filed suit in state court to keep Trump off the ballot, arguing that he's disqualified under Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment. The lengthy and detailed complaint preemptively addresses the several arguments against Section 3's application to Trump and state courts' authority to enforce Section 3. It asks the court to enjoin the state secretary of state from taking any action that would give Trump access to the ballot.
Saturday, July 1, 2023
The Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the Biden Administration's student-debt relief plan exceeded authority under the HEROES Act. That is: the Court said that the plan's illegal.
The ruling means that the plan won't go into effect. But President Biden quickly announced that his Administration would move to implement a similar plan under the Higher Education Act (which gives the Administration greater authority than the HEROES Act). But that'll take some time to implement, because it requires rulemaking processes. President Biden announced short-term relief in the interim.
Even these moves won't end the story, however. Given the political opposition to student-debt relief, we'll certainly see a spate of new lawsuits challenging any action the Administration takes.
The case, Biden v. Nebraska, tested the Secretary of Education's 2022 plan to cancel student-loan debt up to $10,000 for any borrower with income less than $125,000 (or $250,000 for couples) and up to $20,000 for any Pell Grant borrowers. All told, the plan would cancel about $430 billion in federal student loan debt, with about 90 percent of the benefits going to borrowers with incomes under $75,000.
As authority for the plan, the Secretary pointed to the HEROES Act. Under that Act, the Secretary "may waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision applicable to the student financial assistance programs . . . as the Secretary deems necessary in connection with a war or other military operation or national emergency" and "as may be necessary to ensure" that student debtors "are not placed in a worse position financially in relation to that financial assistance because of their status as affected individuals."
States and individuals sued, arguing that the Secretary exceeded his authority under the HEROES Act. In particular, the plaintiffs said that the plan wasn't a "waiver" or "modification," but instead was a top-to-bottom overhaul of the law, in violation of the separation of powers. (The president can enforce the law, not make it.)
The Court agreed. The Court parsed the phrase "waive or modify" and concluded that the plan far exceeded anything that the phrase could support. In sum,
The Secretary's comprehensive debt cancellation plan cannot fairly be called a waiver--it not only nullifies existing provisions, but augments and expands them dramatically. It cannot be mere modification, because it constitutes "effectively the introduction of a whole new regime." And it cannot be some combination of the two, because when the Secretary seeks to add to existing law, the fact that he has "waived" certain provisions does not give him a free pass to avoid the limits inherent in the power to "modify." However broad the meaning of "waive or modify," that language cannot authorize the kind of exhaustive rewriting of the statute that has taken place here.
The Court went on to apply the major questions doctrine from West Virginia v. EPA. The Court said that the plan was unprecedented, and had "staggering" "economic and political significance," and that Congress had not clearly authorized it. Importantly, the Court rejected the government's argument that the major questions doctrine applied only to government regulatory programs, not government benefit programs.
Justice Barrett concurred, arguing that the major questions doctrine squares with textualism ("The doctrine serves as an interpretive tool reflecting 'common sense as to the manner in which Congress is likely to delegate a policy decision of such economic and political magnitude to an administrative agency.'") and the Court's power ("the major questions doctrine is neither new nor a strong-form canon," from footnote 2), and arguing that the major questions doctrine "reinforces" the Court's holding "but is not necessary to it."
Justice Kagan dissented, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Jackson. She argued that "the Court today exceeds its proper, limited role in our Nation's governance," first by accepting the case at all (because the states lack standing) and next by rejecting the plan, which "fits comfortably within" the HEROES Act authority.
Sunday, June 25, 2023
The Supreme Court ruled that Texas and Louisiana lacked standing to challenge the Biden Administration's immigration-enforcement priorities. The 8-1 ruling--on justiciability, not the merits--means that the priorities stay in place.
The ruling is a win for the Biden Administration and its enforcement priorities. The ruling also deals a blow to states trying to sue to challenge non-enforcement decisions by the Executive Branch. This could have wide-ranging implications in the states-sue-the-federal-government-over-everything times that we live in.
The case, United States v. Texas, arose when DHS Secretary Mayorkas promulgated priorities for enforcement of federal immigration law. Secretary Mayorkas issued the priorities in order to deal with a chronic lack of resources to fully enforce immigration law against an estimated 11 million unauthorized noncitizens. The priorities focused enforcement efforts on suspected terrorists and dangerous criminals who recently entered the country without authorization. The lack of full congressional funding was nothing new. Congress has failed to fully fund DHS enforcement efforts for 27 years, and five presidential administrations have had to make similar enforcement decisions, one way or another.
Still, Texas and Louisiana didn't like the Biden Administration priorities, so they sued. They argued that Secretary Mayorkas violated federal immigration law, which says that DHS "shall" arrest and detain certain unauthorized noncitizens. They said that the priorities would cost them money (the basis for their standing), and that they violated the government's obligations under immigration law (on the merits). The district court ruled in their favor; the Fifth Circuit and the Court both declined to stay that judgment; and the Court then granted cert. before judgment.
The Court ruled that the states lacked standing based on precedent or longstanding historical practice. In particular, the Court said that the states couldn't point to anything supporting third party standing to sue the government over a prosecution decision when the plaintiff was neither prosecuted nor threatened with prosecution. In fact, just the opposite: the Court pointed to Linda R.S. v. Richard D. (1973) as precedent cutting the other way.
The Court went on to riff on judicial review of decisions not to prosecute--and why that's a bad idea. At the same time, the Court acknowledged that it has reviewed exercises of prosecutorial discretion in certain areas.
Justice Gorsuch concurred, joined by Justices Thomas and Barrett, focusing on the lack of redressability. Justice Barrett concurred, joined by Justice Gorsuch, and argued that the Court got it wrong not to focus on redressability. Justice Alito dissented.
Tuesday, May 23, 2023
Gibson Dunn, the firm that represents Harlan Crow, wrote to Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin that the Committee lacked authority to investigate Justice Thomas's relationship with Crow and to impose an ethics code on the Supreme Court.
That's some chutzpah.
The firm wrote that Crow wouldn't comply with the Committee's effort to investigate Crow's relationship with Justice Thomas. According to the firm, the Committee's investigation lacks a legitimate legislative purpose, because ultimately Congress cannot impose an ethics code on the Supreme Court--and therefore can't investigate in order to impose such a code. Again according to the firm, a congressional ethics code for the Court would impermissibly encroach on the singular constitutional role and standing of the Supreme Court.
The letter engages with the Necessary and Proper Clause--in particular, the argument that the Necessary and Proper Clause authorizes Congress to impose an ethics code on the Court. But it seems to engage only with the first part of the Clause. According to the letter, the Necessary and Proper Clause doesn't provide Congress with authority to impose an ethics code, because Congress doesn't have the underlying power to impose a code.
But even if that's right--and it's not at all clear that it is--it ignores the second part of the Clause: "The Congress shall have the power . . . [t]o make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof." (Emphasis added.)
The move seems to put the ball back in the Senate Judiciary Committee's court, to subpoena Crow and then move to enforce the subpoena in the courts. That comes with some risk, of course: the Court (which is both a highly interested player and umpire in this separation-of-powers dispute) seems likely to side with Crow, based on its signals.
Thursday, May 18, 2023
The Supreme Court this week agreed to hear a case testing whether minority members on a congressional committee can sue to enforce their statutory right to obtain material from an agency.
But this isn't just any minority, and it's not just any agency material. The dispute arises out of congressional Democrats' efforts to obtain material from the General Services Administration about the Trump organization's lease with the Old Post Office for the Trump International Hotel.
In February 2017, the then-House Oversight Committee ranking member and seven other Democrats (but not a majority of the Committee, because Dems were in the minority) asked GSA for material related to GSA's 2013 lease of the Old Post Office building to Trump Old Post Office LLC. The members cited 5 U.S.C. Sec. 2954, which provides
An Executive agency, on request of the [Committee on Oversight and Reform] of the House of Representatives, or of any seven members thereof, or on request of the Committee on [Homeland Security and] Governmental Affairs of the Senate, or any five members thereof, shall submit any information requested of it relating to any matter within the jurisdiction of the committee.
GSA declined; the members sued; and GSA argued that the members lacked standing.
The case, Maloney v. Murphy, now pits two theories of standing against each other. On the one hand, the members say that they have standing based on an informational harm--that they have a right to information (under Section 2954), and that the GSA denied them that information. This is a little like you or me seeking to enforce a FOIA request in court: a statute grants us a right to information, an agency declines to provide it, and we can sue. But the theory depends on members suffering an informational harm that is personal and individual to them (even if as members of Congress), and not a harm on behalf of Congress (or a committee of Congress) as a body. They point to Powell v. McCormack, among other cases, where the Court has held that a member of Congress has standing based on an injury that is particular to them as a legislator. The D.C. Circuit adopted this theory when it ruled that the members have standing.
On the other hand, GSA (then and now) says that individual members lack standing based on a harm to Congress, the House, or their committee. GSA points to Raines v. Byrd, where the Court held that individual members of Congress can't sue to challenge the Line Item Veto Act, because the harm went to Congress, not to the individual members.
The difference will likely turn on how the Court interprets Section 2954. If the Court reads the statute to authorize individual members to obtain agency material as individual legislators, to serve their individual legislative functions, then the Court will likely say that the members have standing. But if the Court reads the statute to protect the right of the committees to obtain information, it'll likely say they don't.
Monday, December 19, 2022
Chief Justice Roberts issued an order today halting a district court ruling that struck the Trump Administration's Title 42 policy. The administrative stay means that the Title 42 policy will remain in place, notwithstanding the district court's ruling, until the Chief Justice or the full Supreme Court has a chance to consider the issue more thoroughly.
That could be soon. Chief Justice Roberts ordered that the government respond tomorrow, Tuesday.
The Title 42 policy orders U.S. immigration officials to turn away covered noncitizens from any country who try to enter through the Mexican or Canadian borders. This means that the U.S. government turns away asylum seekers from any country who enter through those borders. The Trump Administration adopted the policy in the putative interest of public health--reducing transmission of COVID-19--and purported to use CDC's authority to implement it. But the policy was widely seen as an effort simply to reduce and deter immigration through the Mexican border. Absent the policy, an individual who enters the U.S. even without authorization is entitled to apply for asylum in the U.S.
Today's moves started with a November 15 decision of the U.S. District Court for D.C. that the Title 42 policy violated the Administrative Procedure Act and set a deadline for Wednesday for the government to halt the program. A group of states sought to intervene in the appeal, but the D.C. Circuit said on Friday that they were too late. The states then applied to Chief Justice Roberts for a stay of the district court ruling. Chief Justice Roberts granted the stay, but put the case on a super-fast briefing schedule, suggesting that the Court could rule quickly on whether to stay the district court's ruling pending appeal and possibly take up the case itself.
Thursday, December 15, 2022
The Fourth Circuit issued a mixed ruling on qualified immunity to two different doctors, with very different roles, in a prisoner's Eighth Amendment failure-to-provide-adequate-treatment claim. The court also ruled that the treating physician enjoyed sovereign immunity from the prisoner's medical-malpractice claim.
The case, Pfaller v. Amonette, arose when a prisoner died from liver cancer after prison doctors failed to treat his hepatitis C. The plaintiff alleged that one of those doctors, Amonette, designed treatment guidelines that excluded the prisoner from receiving treatment. The plaintiff alleged that the other doctor, Wang, failed to provide necessary treatment.
The court ruled that Wang did not enjoy qualified immunity, but Amonette did. The court said that Wang failed to refer the prisoner for additional testing after his blood numbers showed that he qualified. The court rejected Wang's argument that he simply made a mistake. And it rejected his argument that the constitutional right wasn't clearly established at the time. On this last point, the court said that the relevant right was the right to receive adequate medical treatment free from deliberate indifference--and not the right (as Wang claimed) to schedule a specific type of follow-up test at a particular time. The court noted that the right to receive adequate medical treatment was well established.
In contrast, the court said that Amonette didn't interact with the prisoner at all, but instead "created a system of prioritization where the sickest inmates received treatment first." The court said that this prioritization was consistent with standards of the medical community and the Federal Bureau of Prisons when resources are limited. The court also noted that "various Courts of Appeals opinions have cut different ways regarding whether similar treatment guidelines pass constitutional muster or violate clearly established law." The court said that this "gray area" itself was enough to protect Amonette.
Finally, the court held that while Wang didn't enjoy qualified immunity from the Eighth Amendment claim, he did enjoy sovereign immunity (as a government employee, doing the government's work) from the medical-malpractice claim.
The Seventh Circuit ruled that corrections officers who were tasked with transferring a pretrial detainee out of a county jail's medical unit enjoyed qualified immunity from the detainee's estate's civil rights suit for his death, because they relied on the judgment of jailhouse medical staff.
The ruling ends this part of the estate's lawsuit against the officers.
The case, McGee v. Parsano, arose when a diabetic detainee exhibited symptoms commonly associated with diabetic ketoacidosis, but was refused medical treatment because a jailhouse nurse thought he was faking. The detainee then died.
The detainee's estate sued officers who were tasked with transferring the detainee out of the medical unit just before his death. (The estate sued the medical staff, too, but that's not at issue in this case.)
The Seventh Circuit ruled that the officers enjoyed qualified immunity from the suit, because they relied on the judgment of medical staff in declining to provide treatment.
[C]orrections officers are not constitutionally obligated to override the judgment of medical professionals unless they have reason to know that an inmate is receiving inadequate treatment. This remains true even when an inmate is in obvious distress and even when the medical staff has misdiagnosed an inmate--or worse, accused him of faking a very real illness. * * * [A] corrections officer may trust jail medical professionals to provide inmates with appropriate medical care. There is accordingly no legal basis for McGee's contention that at the time of Carter's death, the law was clearly established in her favor.
Wednesday, December 14, 2022
The Fourth Circuit ruled that a federal prisoner did not have a Bivens cause of action for a conditions-of-confinement claim under the Eighth Amendment. The ruling means that the prisoner can't sue federal officers for monetary damages for the Eighth Amendment violations that the prisoner alleged.
The ruling specifically follows, and is consistent with, the Supreme Court's hyper-narrowing and all-but-overruling Bivens in recent Terms.
The court in Tate v. Harmon said that the prisoner's claims arose in a "new context," and that "special factors" counseled hesitation in extending Bivens. Following the Supreme Court, the Fourth Circuit acknowledged the overlap in the two questions, and summarized them together:
In explaining above why Tate's claim arises in a "new context," we noted that his claim seeks to impose liability on prison officials on a systemic level, implicating the day-to-day operations of prisons, affecting the scope of the officials' responsibilities and duties, and implicating policy, administrative, and economic decisions. Determinations about the temperature at which to keep cells, the level of cleanliness at which prison employees or inmates themselves are to maintain cells, the adequacy of toilet paper and toothbrushes, and the length and thickness of mattresses are usually the subject of systemwide executive regulations. Moreover, providing a damages remedy for such inadequacies would involve not only decisions of acceptable human needs but also judgments regarding prison staffing levels, economic considerations, and the most efficient procedures for addressing the inadequacies. . . . We conclude that in this context, the political branches are indeed "better equipped to decide whether existing remedies should be augmented by the creation of a new judicial remedy." This is especially so because we are ill-suited to "predict the systemwide consequences of recognizing a cause of action under Bivens," and even our "uncertainty" on that question "forecloses relief."
Monday, December 5, 2022
Anil Kalhan, Judicial Illiberalism: How Captured Courts are Entrenching Trump-Era Immigration Policies, 27 Bender's Immigration Bulletin 1971:
When President Joe Biden took the oath of office, expectations ran high for major changes in immigration policy. While Biden’s predecessor had implemented the most far-reaching anti-immigration program in nearly a century, the Trump presidency never garnered strong public or congressional support for its immigration restrictionist initiatives. Even as xenophobia rapidly took hold among many within the Republican Party’s political, media, and legal elites, polls steadily found that substantial majorities of Americans opposed the Trump immigration agenda. With this reservoir of popular support, Biden forcefully pledged as a candidate not only to take “urgent action to end the Trump Administration’s draconian policies,” but also to restart “the work of building a fair and humane immigration system.” And within hours of assuming office, his administration began dismantling Trump’s legacy.
More than one-and-a-half years later, the Biden administration’s progress in rolling back Trump’s anti-immigration legacy has been decidedly uneven. While some of the responsibility lies squarely with the White House itself, no less disquieting have been the ways in which right-wing politicians have enlisted a phalanx of reliably partisan Trump-appointed judges to actively subvert Biden’s immigration agenda. Together with other conservative judges, these Trump appointees have demonstrated an eagerness to perpetuate the anti-immigration policies of the candidate who voters decisively rejected in 2020, often deploying irregular methods and suspect legal reasoning to do so. The manner in which these judicial appointees have kneecapped the Biden immigration agenda offers a revealing window into how a federal judiciary increasingly captured by conservative extremists may continue to operate as an active, enthusiastic collaborator in efforts to entrench illiberal, antimajoritarian power and right-wing policies, across a range of substantive domains, for years to come.
Friday, December 2, 2022
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.
Wednesday, November 16, 2022
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.
Monday, November 14, 2022
The Supreme Court today rejected an attempt by Kelli Ward, the chair of the Arizona Republican Party, to stop the January 6 Committee from obtaining her phone records around the time of the insurrection.
The ruling means that Ward's phone provider must turn the records over. (The subpoena seeks telephone numbers, not the content of the conversations.)
The Court didn't provide an explanation for denying Ward's application. Justice Thomas and Alito would have granted it, but they provided no explanation, either. (That's not unusual for this kind of request. The Court often issues a decision on an emergency application without an explanation.)
The Committee subpoenaed Ward's provider after Ward, who played an instrumental role in various efforts to reverse the election and prevent the peaceful transition of power, repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment when she testified to the Committee earlier this year. Ward then sued, seeking to quash the subpoena. The district court and the Ninth Circuit both rejected her motion; today the Supreme Court rejected it, too.
Ward argued that the subpoena violated her First Amendment associational rights under Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta. In that case, the Supreme Court struck a California requirement that charitable organizations that solicit contributions in the state must disclose to the state attorney general the identities of their major donors. The Court applied "exacting scrutiny," and ruled that the disclosure regime wasn't sufficiently tailored to meet the state's asserted interests. Ward claimed that "exacting scrutiny" should apply to the Committee's subpoena, too, as a form of compelled disclosure that interfered with her associational rights.
The Ninth Circuit flatly rejected that argument. The court said that Americans for Prosperity didn't even apply, because unlike the disclosure requirement in that case, the Committee's subpoena was targeted at a particular person, Ward, for particular and relevant information to the Committee's investigation, and because Ward made no allegation that disclosure would lead to any harassment (which would interfere with Ward's associational rights). The court noted that the subpoena sought "to uncover those with whom [Ward] communicated in connection with" the January 6 attack, not members of a political party. It also noted that Ward's theory would allow anyone to "raise a First Amendment objection to any subpoena for records of calls that included discussions of politics--or, presumably, of 'social, economic, religious, [or] cultural' matters. (Narcotics traffickers, or anyone else who might face such subpoenas, would be well advised to make at least a few calls to their preferred political party.)"
The court held that even if Americans for Prosperity's "exacting scrutiny" applied, the subpoena met it. That's because it's "narrowly tailored" to get only the information that the Committee needs, and because the Committee already tried to get this information from Ward when she testified, but she invoked the Fifth.
Judge Ikuta dissented from the Ninth Circuit ruling.
Monday, November 7, 2022
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:
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.
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.
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.
Friday, November 4, 2022
The Eleventh Circuit yesterday ruled that Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene's federal lawsuit seeking to halt a state-level challenge to her candidacy was moot. The court said that the state process ran its course in her favor, and so there was nothing left for the federal courts to enjoin.
The case started when a group of Georgia voters filed a claim under Georgia's "Challenge Statute" that Marjorie Taylor Greene was ineligible for election to the House under Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment. That provision says that a person can't be candidate for office if they took an oath as an officer to support the Constitution of the United States and subsequently "shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof."
Greene sued in federal court to halt the state-level challenge, arguing that it violated her First Amendment right to run for public office; the Due Process Clause; Article I, Section 5, insofar as it exceeded the state's power to regulate election procedures and usurped the House's role as judge of the qualifications of its members; and the 1872 Amnesty Act (which she claimed removed the "disability" imposed by Section 3 prospectively to all members of Congress).
The federal district court ruled against Greene, and Greene appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.
Meanwhile, in the state challenge, a Georgia administrative law judge ruled that Greene's challengers failed to show that she fit within Section 3. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger adopted the ALJ's conclusion, and the state courts affirmed.
Given that the state challenge ran its course, the Eleventh Circuit yesterday dismissed Greene's federal case as moot. The court said nothing about the merits of the challengers' Section 3 claim against Greene.
But Judge Branch, in a concurring opinion, argued that Greene was likely to prevail on her claim that the state process would have violated Article I, Sections 4 and 5 by imposing an additional qualification on her--that she defend herself against a Section 3 challenge in a state process:
[I]n purporting to assess Rep. Greene's eligibility under the rubric of Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Georgia imposed a substantive qualification on her. The State was not merely, as the district court incorrectly concluded, enforcing the preexisting constitutional disability in Section 3. Instead, the State Defendants, acting under the Challenge Statute, forced Rep. Greene to defend her eligibility under Section 3 to even appear on the ballot pursuant to a voter challenge to her candidacy--thereby imposing a qualification for office that conflicts with the constitutional mechanism contained in Section 3. In other words, by requiring Rep. Greene to adjudicate her eligibility under Section 3 to run for office through a state administrative process without a chance of congressional override, the State imposed a qualification in direct conflict with the procedure in Section 3--which provides a prohibition on being a Representative and an escape hatch.
Wednesday, November 2, 2022
Chief Justice Roberts issued an order temporarily blocking the House Committee on Ways and Means from obtaining former President Trump's tax returns from Treasury. The D.C. Circuit previously rebuffed Trump's various claims and ruled that the Committee could obtain the returns under a federal law that requires Treasury to turn over tax returns "[u]pon written request from the chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means." Chief Justice Roberts's order (as D.C. Circuit justice) temporarily stays that ruling and blocks the Committee from receiving the returns, pending Court consideration.
At the same time, Chief Justice Roberts ordered the Committee to respond to Trump's application by November 10, indicating that the Court intends to move quickly on this.
The Supreme Court rejected Senator Lindsey Graham's application to halt a lower court ruling requiring him to testify before the special grand jury investigating possible criminal activity surrounding the 2020 general elections in Georgia.
The ruling means that Graham will have to testify, but that he can still raise Speech-or-Debate-Clause immunity in response to particular questions, and bring any disputes back to court.
The order reads,
The lower courts assumed that the informal investigative fact-finding that Senator Graham assertedly engaged in constitutes legislative activity protected by the Speech or Debate Clause . . . and they held that Senator Graham may not be questioned about such activities. The lower courts also made clear that Senator Graham may return to the District Court should disputes arise regarding the application of the Speech or Debate Clause immunity to specific questions. Accordingly, a stay or injunction is not necessary to safeguard the Senator's Speech or Debate clause immunity.
Sunday, October 31, 2021
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in the Texas abortion cases. Here's my oral argument preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
Can federal courts hear challenges by private plaintiffs or the federal government to halt the enforcement of a law that authorizes private citizens to sue doctors for providing an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy?
Case at a Glance
Texas’s S.B. 8 prohibits a doctor from performing an abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, in plain violation of settled Supreme Court precedents. At the same time, the law is designed to foreclose traditional channels of judicial review and effectively prevent federal courts from hearing challenges to it. S.B. 8 does this by authorizing private plaintiffs (and not state officials) to enforce its ban by suing doctors who provide an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy for civil damages. Taken together, S.B. 8’s abortion ban and its outsourced enforcement have achieved their objective: abortions have effectively stopped in Texas. And the federal appeals courts, citing procedural hurdles, have so far declined to intervene.
S.B. 8 is a flat violation of a woman’s fundamental right to an abortion under Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Ordinarily, such a law would be subject to federal judicial review. But S.B. 8’s enforcement mechanism—private lawsuits against abortion providers—is specifically designed to thwart federal judicial review. These cases test whether abortion-rights advocates and doctors or the federal government can nevertheless sue in federal court to stop the law.
Can abortion-rights advocates and abortion doctors or the federal government sue in federal court to halt enforcement of Texas’s S.B. 8?
Texas’s S.B. 8 is an unusual, even unprecedented, act. On its face, S.B. 8 prohibits a physician from knowingly performing an abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, usually around six weeks into a pregnancy, before most women even know that they are pregnant. It contains no exceptions for rape or incest. And it provides only a limited and ill-defined exception for a “medical emergency.”
On its face, that’s a flat violation of a woman’s fundamental right to an abortion. Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992), establish that government can regulate abortion before a fetus is viable (that is, before it is able to survive outside the womb), usually around 22 to 24 weeks into the pregnancy, so long as the regulation does not create an “undue burden” on a woman’s access to abortion. S.B. 8’s ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy plainly constitutes an undue burden on a woman’s access to abortion before viability. In other words, S.B. 8 plainly violates Roe and Casey.
But that’s not why S.B. 8 is unusual. Indeed, a host of states have enacted abortion bans that plainly constitute an undue burden on a woman’s access to abortion before viability. They have enacted such laws for the stated purpose of challenging Roe v. Wade itself, and persuading the Court to overturn the case. In fact, the Court will consider such a law next month, when it hears oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Woman’s Health Organization, a case testing Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. S.B. 8’s plain violation of Roe and Casey doesn’t make the law unusual; it makes it a sign of our times.
So here’s why S.B. 8 is unusual, even unprecedented: it outsources enforcement. In particular, S.B. 8 specifically prohibits state officials from enforcing the ban, which is the usual way that states enforce their laws, and instead authorizes “any person” to sue an abortion provider who provides an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. It also authorizes “any person” to sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion, or even intends to aid or abet an abortion, after six weeks of pregnancy. (S.B. 8 prohibits a plaintiff from suing the woman herself, however.) A plaintiff in these suits need not have any connection to the abortion, or even any connection to Texas. They can get injunctive relief, stopping the defendant from further violating S.B. 8. They can also recover a minimum of $10,000 for each abortion, plus costs and attorney’s fees. That alone creates a strong financial incentive for doctors to stop performing abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.
But there’s more. S.B. 8 prohibits a defendant in these actions from claiming that they believed that S.B. 8 was unconstitutional. (In other words, S.B. 8 purports to stop potential defendants from raising this argument as a defense in an S.B. 8 lawsuit.) And it restricts (although it apparently does not fully prohibit) a defendant from arguing that S.B. 8 creates an undue burden on a woman’s right to abortion. S.B. 8 also prohibits a court from awarding attorney’s fees or court costs to a defendant, even if the defendant prevails. As a result, a prevailing defendant—even against an obviously spurious lawsuit—must cover all costs and attorney’s fees to defend the action. That creates a strong financial incentive for doctors to stop performing all abortions.
Finally, yet more. S.B. 8’s venue rules allow plaintiffs to strategically file their cases in Texas courts that are most amendable to their claims, and to block a defendant’s attempt to transfer to another court. Moreover, S.B. 8’s issue- and claims-preclusion provisions seemingly allow an endless line of plaintiffs to sue an abortion provider, or anyone who aids or abets an abortion, even for the same abortion. (At the same time, another provision of the act says that “a court may not award relief . . . if a defendant demonstrates that the defendant previously paid the full amount of statutory damages . . . in a previous action for that particular abortion . . . .” Taken together, the provisions seem to allow a variety of plaintiffs to sue a defendant for the same abortion, but restrict the court in awarding relief if a defendant has already paid in an earlier case.)
In short, Texas designed S.B. 8 to violate a woman’s fundamental right to abortion under Roe and Casey; effectively to halt abortions in the state; and specifically, to thwart judicial review. That’s not commentary; it’s exactly what Texas legislators said when they enacted the law.
Anticipating these results, Whole Woman’s Health, along with Texas abortion providers and individuals and organizations that support abortion patients, sued to stop S.B. 8 before it went into effect, on September 1, 2021. The plaintiffs sued several state officials, including state court clerks and judges, and a private person, on the ground that they would enforce S.B. 8.
The district court denied a motion to dismiss the case. The Fifth Circuit stayed the district court proceedings and rejected the plaintiffs’ motion for an injunction pending appeal. On emergency appeal, the Supreme Court then declined to grant an injunction against S.B. 8 or to vacate the Fifth Circuit’s stay pending appeal. The Court said that federal courts have the power to enjoin individuals, not laws. It also suggested that the plaintiffs sued the wrong defendants, because “it is unclear whether the named defendants in this lawsuit can or will seek to enforce the Texas law . . . .” (Four justices sharply dissented.) The ruling meant that S.B. 8 went into effect on September 1.
Soon after the Court declined to intervene, the federal government sued Texas itself (and not individuals), arguing that S.B. 8 was unconstitutional. The district court granted the government’s motion for a preliminary injunction, but the Fifth Circuit stayed the injunction pending appeal.
The Supreme Court then agreed to hear both cases and expedited the briefing and arguments. Each case raises the questions whether the federal courts can hear the plaintiffs’ challenges to S.B. 8, and whether they can halt enforcement by the defendants.
At their most fundamental level, both cases test whether the federal courts can hear the plaintiffs’ challenges and enjoin the enforcement of S.B. 8. That’s a contested question, because Texas, by outsourcing S.B. 8’s enforcement to private plaintiffs, diluted and dispersed the enforcement responsibility, making it hard to identify actual defendants before anybody files an S.B. 8 lawsuit. And because S.B. 8’s financial incentives all but prohibit doctors from performing any abortion in the first place, S.B. 8 ensures that there will be few, if any, S.B. 8 lawsuits where a doctor could challenge S.B. 8 after enforcement. (In any event, S.B. 8 limits how doctors can raise challenges in those lawsuits.)
Despite S.B. 8’s design to thwart federal judicial review, the plaintiffs in both cases contend that the federal courts can hear their cases; and because of S.B. 8’s design to thwart judicial review, the plaintiffs argue that the federal courts must hear their cases. Texas, for its part, contends that S.B. 8 technically allows judicial review through S.B. 8 cases themselves—and not in through these federal court cases—even though S.B. 8 itself limits or effectively eliminates that option.
The two cases raise separate but overlapping arguments. (Texas filed a single brief covering both cases.) Because there are some differences, however, we summarize the arguments in the cases separately. Let’s start with Whole Woman’s Health, then we’ll examine United States v. Texas.
Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson
The plaintiffs argue first that their claim “fit[s] neatly” with 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the federal statute that authorizes a civil lawsuit against individuals acting under the authority of state law for violating constitutional rights. They argue that Section 1983 specifically authorizes suits against “judicial officers” acting in their “judicial capacity.” They contend that the “text and purpose” of Section 1983 allows their suit to go forward against the state officials, including the judges, and the private defendant.
The plaintiffs argue next that their suit for injunctive relief against state officers is valid under Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908). The Court in that case held that a plaintiff can sue a state official for prospective injunctive relief, notwithstanding the state’s general immunity from suits for monetary damages under state sovereign immunity and the Eleventh Amendment. The plaintiffs assert that the court clerks, judges, and state officials who are defendants in this action all play roles, to one degree or another, in S.B. 8’s enforcement, and therefore fall within the Ex Parte Young doctrine. Moreover, the plaintiffs write that “where, as here, a law hamstrings state courts’ ability to provide defendants a fair opportunity to vindicate their rights—all while deputizing millions of private citizens to sue—equity requires that federal courts step in and prevent irreparable constitutional injury.”
Third, the plaintiffs argue that they have standing to sue. They contend that the threat of enforcement of S.B. 8 creates an injury (the lack of access to abortion, as illustrated by the actual injury women suffered after the Court declined to halt S.B. 8’s implementation, and the resumption of abortions during the period of injunction in United States v. Texas); that the defendants, to one degree or another, caused that injury; and that an injunction against the defendants would redress the injury, because it would ensure that women again have access to abortion in Texas. The plaintiffs also say that the defendants’ vigorous defense of S.B. 8 in the courts ensures a “sharp presentation” of the “complex and novel” questions.
Finally, the plaintiffs argue that the Court should uphold the district court injunction in order to “protect federal supremacy from the imminent threat posed by S.B. 8 and copycat bills already under consideration by States seeing what Texas has achieved thus far—enactment of a law that baldly defies this Court’s precedent yet is insulated from effective judicial review.” The plaintiffs contend that if S.B. 8 stands, nothing prohibits states from similarly insulating other state laws that blatantly violate constitutional rights from judicial review simply by outsourcing enforcement, exactly as Texas did here.
In response, Texas argues that the plaintiffs lack standing, and that state sovereign immunity bars their suit. Texas says that state executive officials do not have authority to enforce S.B. 8. As a result, the state says that the plaintiffs lack standing to sue those officials, because their actions cannot cause the plaintiffs any injuries, and any judicial relief would not redress the plaintiffs’ injuries. For the same reason, Texas argues that those officials simply do not fall within Ex Parte Young’s exception to Eleventh Amendment immunity. Texas claims that state judges are neutral adjudicators, not adverse parties (or “judicial enforcers” of S.B. 8), and that they are bound to apply both S.B. 8 and Casey. Given this, Texas concludes that the plaintiffs lack standing, because the plaintiffs’ requested relief—an injunction instructing them to apply Casey—would not redress their alleged harm.
Penny Clarkston, the district clerk of Smith County, Texas, filed her own brief. Mark Lee Dickson, “a pastor and anti-abortion activist,” filed his own brief. They made substantially similar arguments.
United States v. Texas
The government argues first that it has authority to sue Texas in equity to protect its interests. The government says that it can sue in equity to prevent Texas from thwarting judicial review under federal law. It claims that it does not sue merely to enforce its citizens’ constitutional rights, but also to prevent Texas’s “unprecedented attack on the supremacy of the Constitution as interpreted by this Court”—a “distinct sovereign interest” that forms the basis of its suit in equity. The government contends that it also has an interest in preventing S.B. 8 from interfering with its own programs that “require federal employees and contractors to arrange, facilitate, or pay for abortions in some circumstances,” and holding federal employees and contractors liable “for carrying out their federal duties.”
The government argues next that the federal courts have the power to grant relief in favor of the government and against Texas. The government claims that under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, an injunction against Texas can also bind state officers and agents and “other persons who are in active concert or participation” with the state or its officers. According to the government, this means that an injunction can bind plaintiffs who bring S.B. 8 suits, court clerks who accept those suits, judges who hear the cases, and other state officials who would enforce any judgments. The government acknowledges that some of this relief may be unusual. But so is S.B. 8. “And having chosen an unprecedented scheme in a deliberate effort to thwart ordinary judicial review, Texas should not be heard to complain when the federal courts exercise remedial authorities that are usually unnecessary.”
Finally, the government argues that the federal courts can grant declaratory relief (declaring that S.B. 8 is invalid), because the government’s power to bring this case in equity “also allows it to seek a declaratory judgment.” The government asserts that declaratory relief would arm abortion providers with a defense in S.B. 8 suits against them, providing “another reason why those suits must be dismissed.” But in any event, the government claims that declaratory relief is no substitute for injunctive relief. That’s the only way “[t]o halt the irreparable injury arising from Texas’s defiance of this Court’s precedent and systematic denial of constitutional rights within the State’s borders . . . .”
Texas counters that the government lacks standing for the same reasons why the Whole Woman’s Health plaintiffs lack standing, but more. Texas says that it does not cause the government harm “by the mere existence of an allegedly unconstitutional state law that may affect private parties.” The state says that the government’s suit amounts to a request for an “advisory opinion” from the Court, and that Court lacks authority under Article III of the Constitution to issue such an opinion. Texas claims that the district court was wrong to hold that the government could “skirt its obligation to show its own cognizable injury” by drawing on the government’s interest in protecting U.S. citizens under federal supremacy principles. The state says that the Supreme Clause does not grant the government a right to sue to protect U.S. citizens; instead, the government, like private parties, must allege that it suffered a harm to itself.
Texas argues next that the government lacks a statutory or equitable basis for requesting an injunction. The state says that the “numerous statutory mechanism” for enforcing constitutional rights do not authorize the government to sue to vindicate U.S. citizens’ substantive-due-process rights. And it says that equitable principles do not authorize the government to sue to vindicate U.S. citizens’ rights just because the state denied those citizens the ability to enforce their own rights. Texas asserts that if the plaintiffs in Whole Woman’s Health want to protect their rights, they can do so as state-court defendants in S.B. 8 civil actions. The government lacks authority to bring this action to enforce their rights for them.
Third, Texas argues that S.B. 8 does not violate the Constitution. The state claims that it has incorporated Casey’s “undue burden” test into S.B. 8 by allowing an abortion doctor to use “undue burden” as a defense in an S.B. 8 action. The state writes that under S.B. 8, “Texas may not impose liability in cases where doing so would cause an undue burden on a woman seeking an abortion—but neither private parties nor the Department of Justice can compel Texas to support abortion beyond that obligatory floor.” Texas says that this comports with Casey, and does not conflict with federal programs in violation of federal supremacy. “Far from discriminating against the federal government, SB 8 is subject to a state-law presumption that it will not apply to the federal government.”
Finally, Texas argues that the district court’s injunction against “the State” amounts to an impermissible injunction against a law, not a person. That’s because none of the state executive defendants can enforce S.B. 8; federal courts cannot enjoin state courts to apply state and federal law (state courts already do that); and private actors are not “state actors” just because they bring an S.B. 8 suit against other private parties.
Three private citizens—Jeff Tuley, Erick Graham, and Mistie Sharp—filed a separate brief as intervenors, making substantially similar arguments. They claim that they intended to bring S.B. 8 suits only against abortion providers for abortions not covered by Casey, and so also argue that the government cannot sue to halt their S.B. 8 suits “over conduct that is unprotected by the Constitution.”
Everybody agrees that S.B. 8 is singular and unprecedented. It plainly violates a woman’s fundamental right to abortion, and, by outsourcing enforcement to private plaintiffs, it thwarts traditional channels of judicial review. For Whole Woman’s Health and the government (and a host of others), this is the problem. For Texas (and a host of others), this is the point.
Whether problem or point, S.B. 8 had its predictable and intended results: It effectively halted abortions in Texas. Texas women who seek an abortion today must travel to neighboring states or other locations where they can still get an abortion. (And they have, flooding abortion providers in neighboring states.) Or, if they cannot afford the time away from work or family or the expense of travel (as is so often the case), or if their health prevents travel, they must go without a doctor-provided abortion.
Time is obviously of the essence, in two ways. On the front end, many or most women don’t even discover their pregnancy until after the sixth week, when S.B. 8 bans abortion. As a result, by the time they know they’re pregnant, many or most women effectively cannot now obtain an abortion in Texas. On the back end, even under Roe and Casey, states can ban abortion entirely after viability, when a fetus can survive outside the womb. As a result, Texas women who seek a doctor-provided abortion must find an out-of-state alternative before about 22 or 24 weeks of pregnancy. All this leaves a narrow window for pregnant women in Texas to exercise their fundamental right to abortion. And, again, that window is only available to Texas women who can travel out of state.
All this is at issue in the case. If the Court rules that federal courts cannot hear the plaintiffs’ cases and halt enforcement of H.B. 8, abortion will remain effectively unavailable in Texas. (There’s a chance that the Court could also decide whether Roe and Casey remain good law. But given that the Court is slated to hear a direct challenge to Roe this Term (oral arguments come just next month), this seems unlikely.)
That’s not a remote possibility. The Court already declined to halt S.B. 8 in Whole Woman’s Health, over the sharp dissents of four justices. (Chief Justice John Roberts joined Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan in various dissents.) One or more of the justices who voted with the majority in that ruling would have to change sides, or find a distinction that persuades them that the courts can hear the government’s case, even if not Whole Woman’s Health’s case.
Such a ruling could have a profound impact on the right to abortion, even if the Court declines to overturn Roe and Casey. Several other states are already considering laws like Texas’s and will quickly enact those copycat laws if the Court rules against the plaintiffs. This could effectively eliminate abortions in those states, just as S.B. 8 effectively eliminated abortions in Texas.
More, such a ruling could have profound impacts well outside the area of abortion rights. As the plaintiffs and several amici point out, if Texas can engineer a law to ban abortion and effectively evade judicial review, then any state can engineer a law to ban any fundamental right and effectively evade judicial review. And there’s no daylight between a woman’s fundamental right to an abortion and any other fundamental right favored by folks with different political stripes. If you have any doubt, check out the amicus curiae brief of the Firearms Policy Coalition in the Whole Woman’s Health case, for example.
Finally, the Court’s rulings in these cases, and in Dobbs, the Mississippi case up next month, could have significant effects on the 2022 mid-term elections. If the Court strikes these state laws, its ruling could mobilize abortion opponents at the polls. If it upholds them, the rulings could mobilize abortion-rights advocates.
All this is to say that these cases are easily among the most important on the Court’s 2021-22 docket so far.
Thursday, September 2, 2021
The Supreme Court allowed Texas's SB8, the highly unusual and severely restrictive anti-abortion law that is specifically designed to evade judicial scrutiny, to go into effect. The Court issued a ruling last night that explained its decision. The text of SB8 is here.
The Court's ruling specifically says that it's not a decision on the constitutionality of Texas's law. Instead, the majority writes that there are too many questions about the technical aspects of the case (given the highly unusual way the law works), and suggests that it's the wrong case, at the wrong time, against the wrong parties.
But as a practical matter the ruling halts abortions in the state where a physician detects a fetal heartbeat (that is, about 85 percent of all abortions) unless and until a plaintiff can bring a successful challenge. And it all but foretells the demise of Roe v. Wade. (Even if the Court doesn't ultimately overturn Roe, this case gives states a roadmap for enacting legislation that eviscerates it.)
All this without full briefing and argument, on the "shadow docket."
The case, Whole Women's Health v. Jackson, tests the constitutionality of Texas's SB8. SB8 requires abortion providers to test for a fetal heartbeat before performing an abortion, and prohibits persons from performing an abortion when they detect a fetal heartbeat. It also prohibits "aiding and abetting" (including funding, even through insurance) of a post-fetal-heartbeat abortion. (Fetal heartbeat usually occurs around six weeks. That's well before the point of viability, and even before many women know they're pregnant. All that's to say that the restriction plainly violates Roe and Casey (and every other post-Roe ruling of the Court that prohibits a state from banning abortion pre-viability).)
But there's a twist. SB8 specifically prohibits state officers from enforcing the law. Instead, it authorizing private individuals to file private suits in state court against any person who provides an abortion in violation of the law. Upon a successful suit, the law requires state courts to enjoin a defendant from providing future abortions in violation of the law, and authorizes at least $10,000 in damages against a person who provides an abortion in violation of the law . . . for each abortion.
The law forbids state courts from awarding costs and attorney fees to successful defendants (which means that they must bear their own costs, even against frivolous and unsuccessful claims). It also says that a defendant cannot defend an action unless the Supreme Court rules that a defendant has third-party standing to assert the right to abortion on behalf of its patients (which it currently has, but that could change), upon a showing that the law imposes an undue burden on the right to abortion (the Casey standard that exists now, but also could (and is likely to) change).
All this means that private individuals, not the state, enforce the law. And at a very high cost. So high, in fact, that abortion providers have stopped providing post-heartbeat abortions, merely out of fear of incurring the costs of defending private lawsuits, even if those end up overturned.
It also means that the law is tricky to test, except as a defense to a private lawsuit (which, again, comes at a prohibitively high cost to abortion providers), and even then not at all a sure thing.
That's all by design. The Texas legislature specifically designed SB8 to effectively halt post-heartbeat abortions in the state and to evade federal judicial review.
And yesterday's opinion shows that it worked. Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett wrote that there were too many questions about the federal court's ability to hear the case by an abortion provider against a private citizen and a state judge who might enforce the law through a private lawsuit. The Court said that it's not clear that the judge will enforce the law in a way "that might permit our intervention," that the Court can issue an injunction against a state judge to halt enforcement of the law, and that the private-citizen defendant will seek to enforce the law by filing a civil action against the plaintiff. The Court's answer: let the law go into effect until a plaintiff can successfully challenge it. (Again, it's not at all clear that a plaintiff could ever challenge it, given the highly unusual way the law works.)
Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan each dissented, and joined each other, except that Chief Justice Roberts didn't join the dissents of the other three. Chief Justice Roberts "would grant preliminary relief to preserve the status quo ante." Justice Breyer argued that "[t]he very bringing into effect of Texas's law may well threaten the applicants with imminent and serious harm" sufficient to allow the Court to grant relief. Justice Sotomayor argued that the Court "silently acquiesced in a State's enactment of a law that flouts nearly 50 years of federal precedent." "Because the Court's failure to act rewards tactics designed to avoid judicial review and inflicts significant harm on the applicants and on women seeking abortions in Texas, I dissent." Justice Kagan argued that the Court improperly took this extraordinary step without full briefing and argument, on the shadow docket.