Monday, July 6, 2020
In its opinion in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants the United States Supreme Court held a provision of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (the “TCPA”), 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(A), exempting certain calls from the prohibition of robocalls violated the First Amendment.
Recall from our discussion when certiorari was granted that the federal law prohibits calls to cell phones by use of an automated dialing system or an artificial or prerecorded voice ("robocalls") subject to three statutory exemptions including one added in 2015 for automated calls that relate to the collection of debts owed to or guaranteed by the federal government including mortgages and student loans. Recall also from our oral argument preview that the case involves the tension between marketplace of ideas and privacy.
The challengers, political consultants and similar entities, argued that this exemption violated the First Amendment as a content regulation that could not survive strict scrutiny and further that the exemption could not be severed from the TCPA. To win, the challengers had to prevail on both arguments. However, a majority of the Justices found that while the exemption violated the First Amendment, it could be severed and so the prohibition in the TCPA applicable to the challengers remained valid.
As the plurality opinion expresses it:
Six Members of the Court today conclude that Congress has impermissibly favored debt-collection speech over political and other speech, in violation of the First Amendment. Applying traditional severability principles, seven Members of the Court conclude that the entire 1991 robocall restriction should not be invalidated, but rather that the 2015 government-debt exception must be invalidated and severed from the remainder of the statute. As a result, plaintiffs still may not make political robocalls to cell phones, but their speech is now treated equally with debt-collection speech. The judgment of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is affirmed.
Despite this seeming overwhelming agreement, there is no majority opinion and the opinions demonstrate a perhaps needless fragmentation of the Justices and complication of precedent.
- Kavanaugh's plurality opinion garnered support from Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, with Thomas joining on the First Amendment issue applying strict scrutiny to a content-based regulation, but not on the severability issue (Part III).
- Sotomayor wrote a brief solo concurring opinion, concluding that although the First Amendment standard should be the more relaxed intermediate scrutiny, the standard was not satisfied. She agreed that severability of the exemption was proper.
- Breyer, joined by Ginsburg and Kagan, agreed that the provision was severable, but dissented on the First Amendment issue, finding that strict scrutiny should not apply and that the robocall exemption survived intermediate-type scrutiny ("The speech-related harm at issue here — and any related effect of the marketplace of ideas — is modest").
- Gorsuch, joined in part by Thomas, agreed that the exemption violated the First Amendment, but argued that it was no severable, or more accurately that severability should not be the issue. He argued that severing and voiding the government-debt exemption does nothing to address the injury the challengers claimed and it harms strangers to this lawsuit. The opinion calls for a reconsideration of "severability doctrine" as a whole, citing in a footnote Thomas's partial dissent in Selia Law just last week.
Thus while the outcome is clear, its ultimate basis is muddied.
Tuesday, June 30, 2020
SCOTUS Holds Free Exercise Clause Bars Application of State's No-Aid to Religious Institutions Clause in State Constitution
In its opinion in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue regarding a state tax credit scheme for student scholarships, the majority held that the scheme must be afforded to religious schools so that the Free Exercise Clause was not violated.
Recall that the Montana Supreme Court held that the tax credit program's application to religious schools was unconstitutional under its state constitution, Art. X §6 , which prohibits aid to sectarian schools. This type of no-aid provision is often referred to as (or similar to) a Blaine Amendment and frequently appears in state constitutions.
In a closely-divided decision, the Court decided that the Montana Supreme Court's decision that the tax credit program could not be extended to religious schools should be subject to struct scrutiny under the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause and did not survive. (The Court therefore stated it need not reach the equal protection clause claims). The Court essentially found that this case was more like Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer (2017) (involving playground resurfacing) and less like Locke v. Davey, 540 U.S. 712 (2004), in which the Court upheld State of Washington statutes and constitutional provisions that barred public scholarship aid to post-secondary students pursuing a degree in theology. The Court distinguishes Locke v. Davey as pertaining to what Davey proposed "to do" (become a minister) and invoking a "historic and substantial” state interest in not funding the training of clergy. Instead, the Court opined that like Trinity Lutheran, Esponiza "turns expressly on religious status and not religious use."
The Court's opinion, by Chief Justice Roberts and joined by Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, is relatively compact at 22 pages. In addition to taking time to distinguish Locke v. Davey, the opinion devotes some discussion to federalism, invoking the Supremacy Clause and Marbury v. Madison in its final section. But the opinion also engages with the dissenting Justices' positions in its text and its footnotes. Along with the concurring opinions, the overall impression of Espinoza is a fragmented Court, despite the carefully crafted majority opinion.
The concurring opinion of Thomas — joined by Gorsuch — reiterates Thomas's view that the Establishment Clause should not apply to the states; the original meaning of the clause was to prevent the federal establishment of religion while allowing states to establish their own religions. While this concurring opinion criticizes the Court's Establishment Clause opinions, it does not confront why a state constitution would not be free to take an anti-establishment position.
Gorsuch also wrote separately, seemingly to emphasize that the record contained references to religious use (exercise) and not simply religious status. Gorsuch did not discuss the federalism issues he stressed in his opinion released yesterday in June Medical Services.
Alito's thirteen page concurring opinion is an exegesis on the origins of the Montana constitutional provision as biased. Alito interestingly invokes his dissenting opinion in Ramos v. Louisiana decided earlier this Term in which he argued that the original motivation of a state law should have no bearing on its present constitutionality: "But I lost, and Ramos is now precedent. If the original motivation for the laws mattered there, it certainly matters here."
(Noteworthy perhaps is that Roberts joined Alito's dissenting opinion in Ramos and Roberts's opinion in Esponiza does spend about 3 pages discussing the Blaine amendments' problematical history, but apparently this was insufficient for Alito).
Ginsburg's dissenting opinion, joined by Kagan, pointed to an issue regarding the applicability of the Court's opinion:
By urging that it is impossible to apply the no-aid provision in harmony with the Free Exercise Clause, the Court seems to treat the no-aid provision itself as unconstitutional. Petitioners, however, disavowed a facial First Amendment challenge, and the state courts were never asked to address the constitutionality of the no- aid provision divorced from its application to a specific government benefit.
Breyer, joined in part by Kagan, essentially argued that the majority gave short-shrift to Locke v. Davey and its "play-in-the-joints" concept authored by Rehnquist as expressing the relationship between the Establishment and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Breyer's opinion is almost as long as the majority opinion, and the majority takes several opportunities to express its disagreement with Breyer, including in a two paragraph discussion, his implicit departure from precedent (e.g., "building on his solo opinion in Trinity Lutheran").
Sotomayor's dissent, also criticized by the majority in text, argues that the Court is "wrong to decide the case at all" and furthermore decides it wrongly. The Court's reframing incorrectly addressed (or seemingly addressed?) whether the longstanding state constitutional provision was constitutional. Thus, she argues, the Court has essentially issued an advisory opinion. On the merits, she contends, "the Court’s answer to its hypothetical question is incorrect." She concludes that the majority's ruling is "perverse" because while the Court once held that "the Free Exercise Clause clearly prohibits the use of state action to deny the rights of free exercise to anyone, it has never meant that a majority could use the machinery of the State to practice its beliefs,” it now departs from that balanced view.
The Court's opinion is much more divided than it seems at first blush. And the future of state constitutional provisions that prohibit taxpayer money from being used to support religious institutions remains in doubt.
June 30, 2020 in Courts and Judging, Equal Protection, Establishment Clause, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Opinion Analysis, State Constitutional Law, Supreme Court (US), Theory | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, June 29, 2020
An article in the New York Times exploring the inner workings of the Washington Post has more than insider media news: it begins by divulging the role of the Washington Post editors in not publishing news about Supreme Court nominee Bret Kavanaugh during his contentious confirmation hearing.
Almost anyone who works in the Washington Post newsroom can look inside its publishing system, Methode, to see what stories are coming. And at the height of the furor over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2018, some who did saw a shocking article awaiting publication.
In the article, Bob Woodward, the Post legend who protected the identity of his Watergate source, Deep Throat, for 30 years, was going to unmask one of his own confidential sources. He was, in particular, going to disclose that Judge Kavanaugh had been an anonymous source in his 1999 book “Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate.”
Mr. Woodward was planning to expose Mr. Kavanaugh because the judge had publicly denied — in a huffy letter in 1999 to The Post — an account about Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton that he had himself, confidentially, provided to Mr. Woodward for his book. (Mr. Kavanaugh served as a lawyer on Mr. Starr’s team.)
The article, described by two Post journalists who read it, would have been explosive, arriving as the nominee battled a decades-old sexual assault allegation and was fighting to prove his integrity.
The article was nearly ready when the executive editor, Martin Baron, stepped in. Mr. Baron urged Mr. Woodward not to breach his arrangement with Mr. Kavanaugh and to protect his old source’s anonymity, three Post employees said. (The three, as well as other Post journalists who spoke to me, insisted on anonymity because The Post prefers that its employees not talk to the media.)
Mr. Baron and other editors persuaded Mr. Woodward that it would be bad for The Post and “bad for Bob” to disclose a source, one of the journalists told me. The piece never ran.
How this is coming to light now is left unexplained.
In its highly anticipated opinion in June Medical Services v. Russo (formerly Gee), the United States Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit's controversial decision upholding Louisiana's abortion restrictions despite their similarity to the ones held unconstitutional in the Court's most recent abortion case, Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt (2016).
Justice Breyer, who also wrote the Court's opinion in Whole Woman's Health, wrote the plurality opinion in June Medical, joined by Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan (None of the women Justices wrote separately, meaning that the abortion opinions in today's case are all by men).
Breyer's plurality opinion concluded that there is standing; recall that the United States argued that the physicians should not have standing to raise the constitutional rights of their patients despite this long standing practice. Breyer's plurality opinion carefully rehearses the findings of fact by the district court (which applied Whole Women's Health) and ultimately concluded that the "evidence on which the District Court relied in this case is even stronger and more detailed" than in Whole Woman's Health. The Fifth Circuit, Breyer's plurality opinion concluded, misapplied the correct standard of review of these findings: the appellate court should have applied the deferential clear-error standard.
Chief Justice Roberts, who dissented in Whole Woman's Health, concurred in June Medical on the basis of stare decisis:
I joined the dissent in Whole Woman’s Health and continue to believe that the case was wrongly decided. The question today however is not whether Whole Woman’s Health was right or wrong, but whether to adhere to it in deciding the present case . . . .
The legal doctrine of stare decisis requires us, absent special circumstances, to treat like cases alike. The Louisiana law imposes a burden on access to abortion just as severe as that imposed by the Texas law, for the same reasons. Therefore Louisiana’s law cannot stand under our precedents.
The Chief Justice's sixteen page concurring opinion, necessary to constitute the majority reversing the Fifth Circuit and upholding Whole Woman's Health is bound to be highly analyzed.
The dissenting opinions are somewhat fragmented. Thomas's dissenting opinion and Alito's dissenting opinion, joined by Gorsuch, and in part by Thomas and Kavanaugh, tracks ground familiar from Whole Woman's Health, with additional discussions of stare decisis. Gorsuch, who was not on the Court when Whole Woman's Health was decided in 2016, penned an opinion accusing the Court of having "lost" its way in a "highly politicized and contentious arena" by not paying due deference to the state legislature. Kavanaugh, who replaced Kennedy who had joined the majority in Whole Woman's Health, not only joined portions of Alito's dissent but wrote separately to stress his agreement with the portions of Alito's opinion that the case should be remanded, and in a footnote also stated that "the District Court on remand should also address the State’s new argument (raised for the first time in this Court) that these doctors and clinics lack third-party standing."
Wednesday, June 24, 2020
A sharply divided three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit today ordered Judge Emmet Sullivan to dismiss the criminal case against Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI. This is hardly the final word, though: the extraordinary ruling is sure to go to the full circuit, and perhaps even the Supreme Court.
Flynn was charged with lying to the FBI as part of the FBI's investigation into connections between the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 election. He pleaded guilty--twice, before two different federal judges--and agreed to cooperate with the government in its ongoing investigation. The court deferred sentencing to allow Flynn to continue to cooperate.
Flynn then moved to withdraw his plea, arguing that the government failed to produce exculpatory evidence. Most recently, DOJ came across material that, according to the government, means that the prosecution can no longer prove the charge. So the government moved to dismiss the case.
Judge Sullivan appointed an amicus to represent the no-dismissal side, invited other amici to weigh in, and set a hearing date on the motions--all to determine whether he should grant "leave of court" to dismiss. (That's the standard under a Rule 48(a) motion to dismiss a criminal charge.) (Judge Sullivan had serious concerns about the government's motion, given the many, many irregularities in the case.)
Then Flynn filed a writ of mandamus in the D.C. Circuit, and the government weighed in to support it. Note that Judge Sullivan had not yet even held the hearing on the motion to dismiss, much less denied it.
(Just gotta say it: Wow. Not your usual federal prosecution.)
Today the D.C. Circuit ruled for Flynn and ordered the prosecution dismissed. Judge Rao wrote the majority opinion, which concluded that Judge Sullivan committed clear legal error. Moreover, by ordering dismissal without a hearing or further consideration by the lower court, the court said that the district court had no role under the Rule 48(a) "with-leave-of-court" standard.
Judge Rao started by noting that a prosecution's motion to dismiss is entitled to a presumption of regularity. But the court wrote that Judge Sullivan raised nothing to challenge this presumption, or to show that this was the kind of case that warranted a hearing or further judicial inquiry into the motion. As such, the court concluded that Judge Sullivan went beyond his authority in appointing an amicus and scheduling a hearing. Again: All this before Judge Sullivan even held the hearing, much less ruled against dismissal.
Judge Rao explained in separation-of-powers terms:
In this case, the district court's actions will result in specific harms to the exercise of the Executive Branch's exclusive prosecutorial power. The contemplated proceedings would likely require the Executive to reveal the internal deliberative process behind its exercise of prosecutorial discretion, interfering with the Article II charging authority. Thus, the district court's appointment of the amicus and demonstrated intent to scrutinize the reasoning and motives of the Department of Justice constitute irreparable harms that cannot be remedied on appeal.
Judge Rao seemed to try to leave open some room for a district court to determine whether to grant "leave of court" on a Rule 48(a) motion to dismiss. But if this case doesn't fit the bill (again, with all its irregularities), it's not clear what would.
Judge Wilkins dissented. In short:
This appears to be the first time that we have issued a writ of mandamus to compel a district court to rule in a particular manner on a motion without first giving the lower court a reasonable opportunity to issue its own ruling; the first time any court has held that a district court must grant "leave of court" pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 48(a) without even holding a hearing on the merits of the motion; and the first time we have issued the writ even though the petitioner has an adequate alternative remedy [that is, appeal after a denial of the motion to dismiss], on the theory that another party [the government] would not have had an adequate alternative remedy if it had filed a petition as well. Any one of these is sufficient reason to exercise our discretion to deny the petition; together they compel its rejection.
Monday, June 15, 2020
In its opinion in the consolidated cases of Bostock v. Clayton County, the United States Supreme Court interpreted the prohibition of discrimination "because of sex" in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. §2000e et. seq. to include sexual and transgender identities. As we discussed in our preview, two of the consolidated cases involved sexual orientation discrimination - Altitude Express v. Zarda and Bostock v. Clayton County Board of Commissioners - while the third - R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC - involved gender identity.
The Court's opinion, authored by Justice Gorsuch and joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, states:
At bottom, these cases involve no more than the straightforward application of legal terms with plain and settled meanings. For an employer to discriminate against employees for being homosexual or transgender, the employer must intentionally discriminate against individual men and women in part because of sex. That has always been prohibited by Title VII’s plain terms—and that “should be the end of the analysis.”
After considering and rejecting the employers' arguments, the opinion concludes:
Some of those who supported adding language to Title VII to ban sex discrimination may have hoped it would derail the entire Civil Rights Act. Yet, contrary to those intentions, the bill became law. Since then, Title VII’s effects have unfolded with far-reaching consequences, some likely beyond what many in Congress or elsewhere expected.
But none of this helps decide today’s cases. Ours is a society of written laws. Judges are not free to overlook plain statutory commands on the strength of nothing more than suppositions about intentions or guesswork about expectations. In Title VII, Congress adopted broad language making it illegal for an employer to rely on an employee’s sex when deciding to fire that employee. We do not hesitate to recognize today a necessary consequence of that legislative choice: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.
The judgments of the Second and Sixth Circuits in Nos. 17–1623 and 18–107 are affirmed. The judgment of the Eleventh Circuit in No. 17–1618 is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
The Court's opinion is 33 pages or so and there are no concurring opinions. Justice Alito's dissent, joined by Justice Thomas, weighs in at over 100 pages including its appendices. There is another dissenting opinion by Justice Kavanaugh, at a more modest 27 pages.
It is the dissenting opinions that provide the constitutional law perspective to the Court's statutory interpretation decision: both claim that the Court is violating separation of powers. Justice Alito begins his lengthy dissent by stating:
There is only one word for what the Court has done today: legislation. The document that the Court releases is in the form of a judicial opinion interpreting a statute, but that is deceptive.
And the Court's most recently appointed Justice, Kavanaugh, begins in a similar vein:
Like many cases in this Court, this case boils down to one fundamental question: Who decides?
Kavanaugh concludes that it should not be the Court's decision, but does expound on why the Court's interpretation regarding "sex" is incorrect.
Congress could, of course, amend Title VII to exclude LGBTQ identities. But the momentum in Congress has tilted in the direction of inclusion, a step which would now be redundant.
As for the connections between Title VII and the Equal Protection Clause and the definitions of "sex" and protection for LGBTQ individuals, these arise in the dissenting opinions. Alito's dissent worries that the Title VII interpretation will "exert a gravitational pull in constitutional cases," so that LGBTQ identities will be afforded the heightened scrutiny standard applicable to sex/gender. For his part, Kavanaugh's dissent stresses that in the Court's discussions of sexual orientation in equal protection doctrine, the Court did not consider sexual orientation part of sex discrimination.
Additionally, all of the opinions raise the First Amendment free exercise of religion specter. The Court's majority states that "worries about how Title VII may intersect with religious liberties are nothing new; they even predate the statute’s passage," but that issue is for another day:
So while other employers in other cases may raise free exercise arguments that merit careful consideration, none of the employers before us today represent in this Court that compliance with Title VII will infringe their own religious liberties in any way.
For Alito dissenting, his views are similar to his views in the same-sex marriage cases. He states here that the " position that the Court now adopts will threaten freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and personal privacy and safety. No one should think that the Court’s decision represents an unalloyed victory for individual liberty."
Monday, June 1, 2020
A sharply divided Supreme Court ruled today in Thole v. U.S. Bank that retirement-plan participants can't sue their former employer for mismanagement of the plan, because they hadn't demonstrated sufficient direct and concrete harm.
The ruling deals a sharp blow to defined-benefit plan participants who seek to sue for plan mismanagement. Under the ruling, those participants have to wait until their actual benefits drop, or close to it. And even so, the Court's ruling may give employers an out. At the same time, the ruling shields employers from liability unless and until their mismanagement is so bad that it actually or imminently results in lowered benefits.
While the plaintiffs sued under the individual cause of action in ERISA, the Court's ruling is based on Article III standing. This means that Congress can't change the law to create more permissive standing.
The case arose when two retirees of U.S. Bank sued that Bank and others for mismanaging their retirement-plan assets. The plaintiffs sued under ERISA's individual cause of action.
The Court ruled that the plaintiffs lacked Article III standing because, in short, they didn't suffer a harm. Justice Kavanaugh wrote for the five conservatives that the plaintiffs' monthly defined benefits didn't drop, or wouldn't imminently drop, based on the mismanagement, and any court ruling wouldn't affect their monthly benefits under the plan.
The Court also noted that the plaintiffs' benefits wouldn't drop even if the retirement plan failed, because the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation backstops failed retirement plans. This raises the question whether the plaintiffs would have standing even if the plan's failing led to a reduction in the benefits that the plan pays out (because the plaintiffs, after all, would theoretically continue to receive the full measure of their defined-benefit plan, even if from the PBGC, and not the plan).
The ruling means that the plaintiffs have to wait to sue until the plan's failure actually or imminently results in a reduction in their own benefits. And even then, the Court might've written in an out for the employer by noting that the PBGC backstops failing plans.
Justice Sotomayor, joined by the three other progressives, dissented. She argued that the plaintiffs have an interest in their plan's integrity, just as private trust beneficiaries have an interest in protecting their trust; that breach of a fiduciary duty is a cognizable injury, even if it doesn't result in financial harm or increased risk of nonpayment; and that the plaintiffs have associational standing to sue on behalf of the plan.
It is hard to overstate the harmful consequences of the Court's conclusion. . . . After today's decision, about 35 million people with defined-benefits plans will be vulnerable to fiduciary misconduct. The Court's reasoning allows fiduciaries to misuse pension funds so long as the employer has a strong enough balance sheet during (or, as alleged here, because of) the misbehavior. Indeed, the Court holds that the Constitution forbids retirees to remedy or prevent fiduciary breaches in federal court until their retirement plan or employer is on the brink of financial ruin. This is a remarkable result, and not only because this case is bookended by two financial crises.
Saturday, May 30, 2020
A closely divided Court in South Bay United Pentacostal Church v. Newsom denied the application for emergency injunction relief sought by the church from California Governor Newsom's Executive Order placing numerical restrictions on all gatherings to combat the spread of the highly infectious corona virus causing COVID-19. The Ninth Circuit panel and the district judge had similarly denied the church's motion for a preliminary injunction.
There is no opinion from the Court. Chief Justice Roberts, who joined the majority in rejecting the emergency application, filed a brief concurring opinion. On the merits, Chief Justice Roberts wrote:
Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time. And the Order exempts or treats more leniently only dissimilar activities, such as operating grocery stores, banks, and laundromats, in which people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods.
The precise question of when restrictions on particular social activities should be lifted during the pandemic is a dynamic and fact-intensive matter subject to reasonable disagreement. Our Constitution principally entrusts “[t]he safety and the health of the people” to the politically accountable officials of the States “to guard and protect.” Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U. S. 11, 38 (1905). When those officials “undertake[ ] to act in areas fraught with medical and scientific uncertainties,” their latitude “must be especially broad.” Marshall v. United States, 414 U. S. 417, 427 (1974). Where those broad limits are not exceeded, they should not be subject to second-guessing by an “unelected federal judiciary,” which lacks the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health and is not accountable to the people. See Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority, 469 U. S. 528, 545 (1985).
That is especially true where, as here, a party seeks emergency relief in an interlocutory posture, while local officials are actively shaping their response to changing facts on the ground. The notion that it is “indisputably clear” that the Government’s limitations are unconstitutional seems quite improbable.
In short, religious gatherings were not being treated any differently under the California Order and the judiciary should defer to the politically accountable entities in health situations, especially when these are uncertain and changing.
Justice Bret Kavanaugh wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch — but interestingly not Justice Alito — concluding that the California Order did not treat the religious institutions the same as "comparable secular businesses" such as grocery stores. Kavanaugh argues that given this differential treatment, struct scrutiny should apply, and California has not advanced a sufficiently compelling reason to treat religious gatherings differently.
As the pandemic continues, there is certainly sure to be more litigation, but for a majority of the Court, gatherings including those that are religious can be limited in service to public health.
May 30, 2020 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Medical Decisions, Opinion Analysis, Religion, Science, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, May 19, 2020
The Sixth Circuit has granted en banc review requested by a member of the court (rather than the parties) in Gary B. v. Whitmer. The panel's "previous decision and judgment of this court are vacated, the mandates are stayed, and these cases are restored to the docket as pending appeals."
This is not unanticipated. Recall that a divided panel held that there is a fundamental right to a "basic minimum education" providing "access to literacy" as a substantive due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment. Our extensive analysis of the panel opinion is here.
Thursday, May 14, 2020
The Fourth Circuit, sitting en banc, denied President Trump's interlocutory appeal of the district court's failure to rule on his motion to dismiss in the Emoluments Clause case brought by Maryland and D.C.
The ruling is a victory for Maryland and D.C., in that it keeps the case going. But it says nothing on the merits, or on the several other barriers that the plaintiffs may face in bringing this suit. It merely sends the case back to the district court for a ruling on President Trump's motion and other proceedings.
After Maryland and D.C. sued President Trump for Emoluments Clause violations, the President moved to dismiss, arguing that he enjoyed absolute immunity. The district court didn't rule on the motion for seven months, so President Trump filed an interlocutory appeal with the Fourth Circuit, arguing that the district court effectively denied his motion.
A three-judge panel agreed and held that Maryland and D.C. lacked standing. (We posted on the Fourth Circuit's standing ruling here.) The court vacated that ruling and granted en banc review.
Today's ruling says that the Fourth Circuit didn't have jurisdiction to hear the case.
The court said that
the district court neither expressly nor implicitly refused to rule on immunity. It did not make any rulings with respect to the President in his individual capacity. To the contrary, the district court stated in writing that it intended to rule on the President's individual capacity motion. Despite the President's suggestion, the district court's deferral did not result in a delay 'beyond all reasonable limits.'
The dissent disagreed, and wrote that "[t]he district court's treatment of the President's invocation of absolute immunity is best characterized as deliberately dilatory and, more probably, manipulative."
Monday, May 11, 2020
The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments (telephonically) in the consolidated cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrisey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel.
Recall that these cases involve an application of the First Amendment's "ministerial exception" first accepted by the Court in 2012 in Hosana-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC. In the unanimous decision in Hosanna-Tabor, the Court found that the school teacher Cheryl Perich was tantamount to a minister. Thus, under both Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, as a "minister" her employment relations with her church school employer were eligible for a "ministerial exception" to the otherwise applicable employment laws, in that case the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But how far such this extend and who should qualify as a "ministerial" employee subject to the exemption from employment laws? The factors that courts have derived from Hosana-Tabor include:
- (1) whether the employer held the employee out as a minister by bestowing a formal religious title;
- (2) whether the employee’s title reflected ministerial substance and training;
- (3) whether the employee held herself out as a minister; and
- (4) whether the employee’s job duties included “important religious functions.”
Throughout the oral argument, the question was which of these factors should be the test. Morgan Ratner, on behalf of the United States as amicus curiae argued that the sole factor of the employee performing an "important religious function" should be the test. And yet, the very determination of whether an employee was performing "important religious functions" implicates an Establishment Clause issue should the court make such determinations. Indeed, Justice Gorsuch pressed on whether the court should simply accept the religious organization's statement that it had a sincere religious belief.
Nevertheless, the United States argued that this "important religious functions" factor should govern, even if the employee was not terminated for a religious reason, but — as is the allegation in these cases — for a health issue or for age discrimination. Both Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor repeated the broadness of the exemption sought. And further, the fact that the teacher need not share religious identity with the organization should not be relevant to a determination of "important religious functions":
KAGAN: [A]nd if a position can be filled by any old person, not by a member of a faith, isn't that a pretty good sign that the employee doesn't have that special role within the religious community?
MS. RATNER: No, Justice Kagan, I don't think so. And -- and there are really several reasons. The -- the most important one is that's essentially a religious judgment about who is qualified to perform certain important religious functions and how much of the creed of that religion you need to share to perform that function.
Arguing for the teachers who had been terminated, Jeffrey Fisher pointed out the number of teachers employed in religious schools, and the number of other employees in religious hospitals. Fisher argued the expansiveness of the religious organization's argument:
So it really is a sea change – even as to teachers, leaving everything else aside, it is truly a sea change that is being requested by the other side here today in terms of how teachers and schools are classified and whether they have any employment rights at all or -- or, in fact, whether at least if you follow the way the lower courts have -- have implemented the ministerial exception, you basically have employment law-free zones in all religious schools.
Fisher also contended that many other laws were at stake, not only discrimination laws, but wage and hour and equal pay acts, as well as teacher credentialing laws including specific provisions such as criminal background checks.
Thus, while the ministerial exemption as rooted in the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment originally excepted only "ministers," there is a chance that it will be broadened to include all - - - or almost all - - - employees at religious organizations.
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in Trump v. Mazars and Trump v. Deutsche Bank, testing whether Congress has authority to subpoena the President's financial records from third-party custodians of those records. Here's my Preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission. (This doesn't address the political question issue, which the Court asked the parties to brief after this came out).
These cases test the authority of three different Committees of the U.S. House of Representatives to issue third-party subpoenas in support of their oversight and investigations into different aspects of President Trump’s private financial dealings. Let’s look at the Committees’ investigations one at a time.
The Oversight Committee Investigation
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform is engaged in an ongoing investigation into Executive Branch ethics and conflicts of interest, presidential financial disclosures, federal lease management, and possible violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses. As relevant here, the Committee is examining President Trump’s personal business interests and his decision to maintain ties to these interests (and not fully divest from them, consistent with prior presidential practice). In particular, the Committee has identified concerns with the Government Services Administration’s (GSA) ongoing management of the lease of the federal Old Post Office Building for the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.; the adequacy and accuracy of President Trump’s financial disclosures and the adequacy of federal ethics laws; and allegations by Michael Cohen that President Trump falsely reported his assets. According to the Committee, the investigation is designed “to determine the adequacy of existing laws and perform related agency oversight.”
After the Committee heard testimony from Cohen that included allegations that President Trump falsely reported his assets, the chair wrote to Mazars and requested accounting documents related to President Trump and certain of his businesses from January 1, 2009, to the present. Mazars declined to produce this material.
On April 12, 2019, the chair then sent a memorandum to Committee members explaining the need for a subpoena to Mazars. The memo identified four subjects that the Committee had “full authority to investigate”: (1) “whether the President may have engaged in illegal conduct before and during his tenure in office,” (2) “whether [the President] has undisclosed conflicts of interest that may impair his ability to make impartial policy decisions,” (3) “whether [the President] is complying with the Emoluments Clauses of the Constitution,” and (4) “whether [the President] has accurately reported his finances to the Office of Government Ethics and other federal entities.” The chair also wrote that the Committee’s “interest in these matters informs its review of multiple laws and legislative proposals under our jurisdiction.”
The Committee then issued a subpoena to Mazars seeking documents related to financial statements, engagement letters, supporting documents, and related communications for President Trump and certain of his businesses, from 2011 through 2018.
The Financial Services Committee Investigation
The Financial Services Committee is engaged in an ongoing, broad investigation into financial institutions’ compliance with banking laws and whether those laws adequately protect against foreign money laundering, other financial crimes, and high-risk loans. As part of this investigation, the Committee is looking into practices at Deutsche Bank and Capital One.
These banks “have long provided business and personal banking services” to President Trump and his family. According to a series of media reports over the last few years, these banks made questionable loans to President Trump. Most recently, a New York Times Magazine article reported that Deutsche Bank had concerns that President Trump’s “real estate projects were laundromats for illicit funds from countries like Russia, where oligarchs were trying to get money out of the country.”
In order to further its investigation, the Committee issued two subpoenas. The first was directed at Deutsche Bank; it sought documents and records that included detailed financial information “belonging to, or likely to reveal information, concerning” President Trump and his family. The Deutsche Bank subpoena covered material from January 1, 2010, to the present (with no closing date). The second subpoena was directed at Capital One; it sought information about various Trump businesses and their principals and “other representatives,” including businesses affiliated with the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. The Capital One subpoena covered material from July 19, 2016, to the present (again with no closing date). Deutsche Bank and Capital One declined to comply.
The Intelligence Committee Investigation
The House Intelligence Committee is engaged in an ongoing investigation into “efforts by Russia and other foreign actors to influence our political process before, during, and since the 2016 election.” The investigation includes assessing “whether foreign actors have financial leverage over President Trump, whether legislative reforms are necessary to address these risks, and whether our Nation’s intelligence agencies have the resources and authorities needed to combat these threats.”
In order to further its investigation, the Committee issued a subpoena to Deutsche Bank, covering the exact same material and time frames as the Financial Services Committee’s subpoena. Deutsche Bank declined to comply.
In all, the three House committees issue four third-party subpoenas for financial information about President Trump.
Before the response date for any of the subpoenas, President Trump brought two separate lawsuits—one in Washington, D.C., and the other in New York City—to stop Mazars and the banks from complying. President Trump sued “solely in his capacity as a private citizen.” Mazars and the banks took no position on the underlying issue—the Committees’ authority to issue the subpoenas—and so the Committees intervened as defendants.
After the President filed suit, the House passed Resolution 507, purporting to ratify the Committees’ subpoenas. The Resolution stated that the House “ratifies and affirms all current and future investigations” and “subpoenas previously issued or to be issued in the future, by any standing or permanent select committee of the House,” related to the President, his immediate family, his businesses and organizations, and others with ties to the President, including any “current or former” government employees.
Both district courts ruled against President Trump, and the D.C. and Second Circuits affirmed. This appeal followed.
Congress has implied authority under the Constitution to engage in investigations and oversight of issues and areas that fall within its legitimate lawmaking power. As part of this implied authority, Congress can issue subpoenas to collect information to advance its investigations and oversight. Either house of Congress can delegate these authorities to its committees.
But a committee’s investigative and oversight authorities are not unbounded. Congressional investigations or oversight must serve a “legitimate legislative purpose,” they must be authorized by their full house, and they may not impermissibly encroach on another branch’s authority.
The parties frame their arguments around these baseline principles.
President Trump argues first that the committees did not have a legitimate legislative purpose in issuing the subpoenas. For one, he says that the subpoenas at best seek information that might lead to legislation. But he claims that this is not enough to bring the subpoenas within Congress’s legitimate lawmaking authority. For another, he asserts that the subpoenas probe into areas where Congress simply cannot legislate, for example, extending conflict-of-interest restrictions to, and imposing disclosure requirements upon, the President, and that they therefore lack a legitimate legislative purpose. For a third, he contends that the bank subpoenas impermissibly seek his personal financial information only as a “case study” for financial sector reform, and that simply does not fit within Congress’s legitimate lawmaking power. For a fourth, he contends that the subpoenas are part of the Committees’ exercise of law enforcement power, not law-making power, and that they impermissibly encroach on executive authority in violation of the separation of powers. And for a fifth, he asserts that the subpoenas are based on the Committees’ pure political interests, not legitimate lawmaking interests.
President Trump argues that for all these reasons even an ordinary congressional subpoena would fail. But he claims that the “unprecedented” congressional subpoenas seeking private information of the President should be subject to an even higher standard, and that under a higher standard these subpoenas would fail all the more.
President Trump argues next that the Committees lack express authority under House rules to issue the subpoenas. He claims that express delegation to the Committees to issue subpoenas is necessary in investigations, like these, that raise serious separation-of-powers issues, because “Congress seeks to encumber the President” and because the Committees are pushing the outer boundaries of congressional authority. Moreover, he says that requiring an express delegation, and ruling against the Committees because they lacked it, would allow the Court to avoid ruling on the underlying constitutional issues. President Trump contends that Resolution 507 did not provide express delegation, because it did not purport to amend House rules, did not expand the Committees’ authority, and acted retroactively “in violation of controlling precedent.” Finally, President Trump argues that interpreting Resolution 507 to expressly delegate power to the Committee to issue these subpoenas would only clear the way for every House Committee to issue its own subpoenas. According to the President, this, in turn, would “keep the President from fulfilling the obligations of his office.”
The government weighs in as amicus to support President Trump. The government lodges arguments similar to President Trump’s, but puts a finer point on the “heightened requirements” that it says Congress must meet in order to subpoena the President’s records. In particular, the government proposes this:
At the threshold, the full [House] chamber should unequivocally authorize a subpoena against the President. Moreover, the legislative purpose should be set forth with specificity. Courts should not presume that the purpose is legitimate, but instead should scrutinize it with care. And as with information protected by executive privilege, information sought from the President should be demonstrably critical to the legitimate legislative purpose. A congressional committee cannot evade those heightened requirements merely by directing the subpoenas to third-party custodians, for such agents generally assume the rights and privileges of their principal . . . .
For many of the same reasons raised by President Trump, the government says that the Committees’ subpoenas do not meet this heightened test.
The Committees counter that legislative subpoena power is an essential and time-tested part of congressional authority. (They rehearse in their merits brief the many similar congressional investigations that illustrate why their own investigations are hardly “unprecedented,” as the President contends.) They say that congressional authority’s “historical pedigree is too strong for it to be narrowed by the arguments” of the President and the government. They contend that instead of applying “heightened requirements” for these subpoenas (as the President and the government argue), the Court should defer to the Committees, so long as the subpoenas are related to a valid legislative purpose—one that “will inform Congress on a subject on which legislation could be had.”
The Committees argue next that they had “multiple legislative purposes” in issuing the subpoenas, as the courts below found. To illustrate this, they point to several pending bills, which are constitutionally permissible, that will be informed by these investigations. Moreover, the Committees contend that it doesn’t matter that they are investigating wrongdoing, so long as the investigations are related to a legitimate legislative purpose (which they are). And they say, contrary to the President and the government, these subpoenas (directed, as they are, to third parties) do not impair the President’s ability to perform his constitutional duties.
The Committees argue that the government’s “heightened standard” for subpoenas for material related to the President’s purely personal behavior conflicts with the Constitution. They say that the government’s proposed requirement that the full House authorize subpoenas concerning the President disregards the House’s constitutional power to determine its own rules. They contend that the proposed requirement that courts more closely scrutinize Congress’s stated purposes “invites inappropriate judicial micromanagement of Congressional oversight.” And they assert that the proposed requirement that a subpoena is “demonstrably critical” to congressional purposes “brazenly stacks the deck in favor of one Branch over another.” But the Committees contend that even if the Court applied the government’s test, their subpoenas would satisfy it.
Finally, the Committees argue that the House properly authorized them to conduct their investigations and issue their subpoenas. They contend that they have explicit authority to issue any subpoenas that they “consider necessary” to carry out “any of [their] functions and duties” under House Rule XI.2(m)(1). And they say that House Resolution 507 ratified and affirmed the specific subpoenas here.
This case, just like the companion case Trump v. Vance, testing whether President Trump has to comply with a state grand jury subpoena for his tax records, has obvious and much-discussed political significance. But the subpoenas in this case sweep more broadly than the subpoena in Vance: these subpoenas seek a variety of material related to President Trump and his business organizations, while the subpoena in Vance now only seeks his tax records. As a result, this case has potentially higher stakes. In particular, a ruling against President Trump could allow the Committees to obtain a trove of material relating to President Trump’s financial dealings and their bearing, if any, on his public duties. On the other hand, a ruling for President Trump could hamstring the Committees’ investigations, or even halt them altogether, and close off this avenue to public disclosure of this material. While President Trump’s taxes may get more play in our popular political debates, his broader financial dealings are likely far more significant.
As with Vance, however, it’s not clear how much any of this will matter. Given President Trump’s remarkably stable and durable base, and given his similarly remarkably stable and durable opposition, the Court’s ruling, whatever it is, will likely be interpreted by the general public in pure political terms (pro-Trump, or anti-Trump). That’s especially true coming on the heels of the impeachment proceedings, when relations between President Trump and House Democrats are already at a new low. In this highly strained political environment, it’s easy to see how partisans will put a political cast on these rulings, and on the justices behind them. It’s equally easy to see how the inevitable reactions to these cases, therefore, threaten to do lasting harm to our collective faith in a politically independent judiciary.
This case also threatens to do lasting harm to Congress. If adopted by the Court, President Trump’s arguments, echoed by the government, could substantially rein in Congress’s investigation and oversight authorities. In particular, if the Court were to adopt the argument that Congress lacked a legitimate legislative purpose—an argument that this administration has pressed hard in other congressional investigations not directly involving the President—this could seriously constrain Congress’s power to check the Executive Branch. In its strongest form, sometimes adopted by this administration, this argument could allow the Executive Branch to wholly ignore congressional oversight and investigations, leaving Congress little practical authority to coax the administration to cooperate. But even at the very least, this argument, if adopted by the Court, could open the door to active judicial intervention in congressional oversight and investigations. In short, this argument, if adopted by the Court, would shift power away from Congress to the Executive Branch and the courts, and thus significantly alter our current separation of powers.
Thursday, May 7, 2020
The Supreme Court ruled today in United States v. Sineneng-Smith that the Ninth Circuit overstepped when it invited amici to brief, and then ultimately ruled upon, an issue not raised by the parties. Justice Ginsburg concluded for a unanimous court, "[A] court is not hidebound by the precise arguments of counsel, but the Ninth Circuit's radical transformation of this case goes well beyond the pale."
The case arose when Evenlyn Sineneng-Smith, an immigration consultant, charged multiple clients over $6,000 each for filing applications for a labor certification program. The problem: the applications missed the deadline, and Sineneng-Smith knew it.
She was indicted for violations of 8 U.S.C. Sec. 1324, which makes it a felony to "encourag[e] or induc[e] an alien to come to, enter, or reside in the United States, knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that such coming to, entry, or residence is or will be in violation of law."
Sineneng-Smith argued that the provisions didn't cover her conduct and, if they did, that they violated the Petition and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. The district court rejected those arguments and convicted her.
Sineneng-Smith appealed, raising the same claims. But the Ninth Circuit invited amici to brief and argue that Section 1324 was impermissibly overbroad (among other things), a claim that Sineneng-Smith hadn't yet raised. The Ninth Circuit ultimately ruled that Section 1324 was overbroad in violation of the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court reversed. The Court ruled that the Ninth Circuit reached out for this issue, in violation of the principle that courts rely on the parties to frame the issues. The Court vacated the judgment and remanded "for reconsideration shorn of the overbreadth inquiry interjected by the appellate panel and bearing a fair resemblance to the case shaped by the parties."
Justice Thomas concurred, but wrote that he would consider revisiting the overbreadth doctrine in an appropriate case.
Friday, May 1, 2020
The Eleventh Circuit ruled this week that a group of Florida voters and organizations lacked standing to challenge the state's law that specifies the order of candidates on its ballots. The ruling dismisses the case and leaves the state law in place.
The plaintiffs in the case--Democratic state voters and organizations--challenged Florida's law that puts the candidate of the party that won the last gubernatorial election in the state at the top of the list of candidates for each office. They claimed that this gives up to a five percent advantage to that party (now Republicans), on average, in elections across the state, and that this violated their right to vote. The district court agreed.
But the Eleventh Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs lacked standing. The court held that the plaintiffs couldn't show an injury in fact that flowed from the defendant Secretary of State's actions and that could be redressed by a ruling of the court.
As to injury, the court held that the individual voters couldn't show a direct injury to their right to vote, and that their claims of vote dilution were insufficient to establish standing (because they relied on the statewide average vote dilution, not their own particular dilution). The court held that the organizations lacked associational standing for the same reasons, and that they lacked organizational standing (on their own) under a diversion-of-resources theory. According to the court, that's because they failed to show what activities they'd divert their resources from in order to deal with the ballot-sequence law.
As to causation and redressability, the court said that the Secretary didn't have authority under state law to enforce the ballot-sequence provision--the county supervisors do, and they're not part of the case--and so the plaintiffs couldn't show that the Secretary's actions caused any injury, or that judicial relief aimed at the Secretary would redress any injury.
Judge William Pryor concurred, arguing that the case also raised a non-justiciable political question (because the court didn't have "discernable and manageable standards" to work it out).
Judge Jill Pryor agreed that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate an injury. But she argued that the question of the Secretary's authority under state law was much more complicated than the majority made it out to be, and she therefore wouldn't have ruled on causation and redressability. Judge Pryor argued that the court, by ruling on those points when it wasn't necessary, "creates a circuit split on the connection a state official must have with a challenged state statute for a plaintiff to satisfy traceability and redressability."
Monday, April 27, 2020
In a brief per curiam decision, the United States Supreme Court has declared the controversy in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. City of New York, New York moot.
Recall from our discussion of the oral argument that there was a substantial mootness question: the City of New York changed the regulation to allow for transport to another residence and a range or shooting club, whether or not those secondary places are within the City. Additionally, the state of New York amended its law to provide for the legality of transport. The Court had previously rejected a filed "Suggestion of Mootness" and instructed the parties to address the issue at oral argument.
Recall also that a unanimous panel of the Second Circuit, affirming the district judge, rejected a constitutional challenge to the New York City regulation regarding "premises license" for a handgun. Under the former 38 RCNY § 5-23, a person having a premises license “may transport her/his handgun(s) directly to and from an authorized small arms range/shooting club, unloaded, in a locked container, the ammunition to be carried separately.” The definition of "authorized" range/shooting club, however, includes a limit to facilities located in New York City and is the essence of the plaintiffs' challenge. The New York State Rifle & Pistol Ass'n, as well as three individual plaintiffs, argued that this limitation is unconstitutional pursuant to the Second Amendment, the dormant commerce clause, the right to travel, and the First Amendment. Their specific arguments centered on the two instances: that one plaintiff was prohibited from taking his handgun to his second home in Hancock, New York; and that all plaintiffs wanted to take their handguns to firing ranges and competitions outside of New York City.
The Supreme Court's decision vacates that previous Second Circuit judgment.
Dissenting, Justice Alito, joined by Gorsuch, and in part by Thomas, argued that the mootness determination was incorrect and "permits our docket to be manipulated in a way that should not be countenanced." After a discussion of the mootness question, Alito's dissent proceeds to the merits, arguing that the New York City ordinance violated the Second Amendment, which "is not a close question," following "directly from" District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and later discussing McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010). Alito wrote:
In sum, the City’s travel restriction burdened the very right recognized in Heller. History provides no support for a restriction of this type. The City’s public safety arguments were weak on their face, were not substantiated in any way, and were accepted below with no serious probing. And once we granted review in this case, the City’s public safety concerns evaporated.
We are told that the mode of review in this case is representative of the way Heller has been treated in the lower courts. If that is true, there is cause for concern.
In a brief concurring opinion, Kavanaugh stated he shared Alito's
concern that some federal and state courts may not be properly applying Heller and McDonald. The Court should address that issue soon, perhaps in one of the several Second Amendment cases with petitions for certiorari now pending before the Court.
In terms of "proper" application, recall that the Second Circuit panel tracked the analytic structure articulated previously by the Second Circuit. Recall that in 2015, in New York State Rifle & Pistol Ass'n v. Cuomo, the Second Circuit developed a rubric, similar to the methodologies employed by other circuits. (SCOTUS denied certiorari in that 2015 case). The first inquiry in this rubric is whether the Second Amendment is applicable. If it is, then the court determines the level of scrutiny. And finally, the court would apply that level of scrutiny. The Second Circuit in this case had concluded that intermediate scrutiny was the appropriate standard based on its analysis of two factors: "(1) ‘how close the law comes to the core of the Second Amendment right’ and (2) ‘the severity of the law’s burden on the right." It held the NYC law satisfied intermediate scrutiny.
Importantly for now, the methodology for determining what level of scrutiny should be applied in Second Amendment challenges remains unresolved by the Supreme Court.
Sunday, April 26, 2020
In a divided panel opinion in Gary B. v. Whitmer, the Sixth Circuit held that there is a fundamental right to a "basic minimum education" providing "access to literacy" as a substantive due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Recall that in July 2018, United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Michigan Stephen Murphy dismissed the complaint in Gary B. alleging constitutional violations in the public schools in Detroit. For Judge Murphy, the constitutional right alleges here of "access to literacy" was sufficient to seemingly distinguish it from San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973), in which the Court rejected "education" as a fundamental right, but not ultimately distinguishable. The district judge found any right to access literacy was not cognizable as a fundamental right under the "standard" articulated in Washington v. Glucksberg (1997) and the complaint was furthermore seeking recognition of a prohibited "positive right" given that the Constitution only recognizes "negative" rights.
On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed this conclusion. (The Sixth Circuit did affirm the district court's finding that the claims for equal protection merited dismissal).
The 60 page opinion by Judge Eric Clay, joined by Judge Jane Branstetter Stranch, is impressively well-written and well-structured. After an extensive discussion of the facts and procedural history, the court articulates the standard for its review of a motion to dismiss and disposes of the mootness and sovereign immunity arguments. The court also relatively quickly dispatches the equal protection claim based on the pleadings as well as the claim that the state's compulsory education mandate gives rise to a due process claim (seemingly a "negative right" backup to the argument that the complaint failed as only seeking "positive" rights). The court reaches the central issue of the fundamental right to a basic minimum education, "meaning one that provides access to literacy" at about midway through the opinion.
The court first articulates the two-pronged Glucksberg test and then rehearses the United States Supreme Court's education cases, beginning with this overview:
Beyond the general framework for assessing whether an asserted right is fundamental, the Supreme Court has also, in a series of cases, addressed the extent of constitutional rights with respect to state-provided education. Its education jurisprudence teaches several lessons. First, the Court has found that there is no broad, general right to education. Rodriguez. Second, while no general right to education exists, the Supreme Court has specifically distinguished and left open “whether a minimally adequate education is a fundamental right.” Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 285 (1986); see also Rodriguez. Third, education is, at minimum, highly important to “maintaining our basic institutions,” and so the denial of public education to a discrete group of students “must be justified by a showing that it furthers some substantial state interest.” Plyler [v. Doe (1982)]. And fourth, the Court has addressed the critical link between education and race discrimination in America. We discuss the Court’s relevant education cases in turn, beginning chronologically.
[some citations and Sixth Circuit references omitted].
After its detailed discussion of Rodriguez and Plyler, incorporating the parties' arguments, the court discussed the lesser-known cases of Papasan v. Allain and Kadrmas v. Dickinson Public Schools (1988). The court notes that the plaintiffs in Papasan did argue that they were deprived an opportunity to acquire basic minimal skills under the state's funding scheme, but the Court did not reject their claim as a matter of substantive due process: "Instead, the Court found that, assuming such a right existed, the plaintiffs had failed to allege sufficient facts in support of their claim." This, the Sixth Circuit reasoned, was an "answer on pleadings, sure, but not on constitutional law." Similarly, the Sixth Circuit found that the "Court essentially repeated this non-answer in Kardmas." Kardmas involved a fee charged for the bus transportation to attend public schools, but given that the plaintiffs were attending school "despite the bus fee," their claim was interpreted not as a denial of education but for wealth-discrimination based the payment of the bus fee. The Sixth Circuit quotes Justice Marshall's dissent in Kardmas as stating that the Court had still not decided whether there was a fundamental right to a minimal education.
That is the question that the Sixth Circuit panel takes up, using the framework of the Glucksberg prongs, and finds that access to a minimal education is a fundamental right.
In its discussion of whether the right to a basic minimum education is "deeply rooted in our Nation's history and traditions," the Sixth Circuit finds that the historical prevalence of education makes it "deeply rooted in our history and tradition, even under an originalist view." The opinion then notes that 92% of the population lived under mandated state-policies of public education at the time of the Fourteenth Amendment, and further declares that "history should not be viewed only as a static point," discussing the expansion of education. Most interestingly, perhaps, Judge Clay's opinion for the Sixth Circuit majority then develops an argument that "Our nation's history of racial discrimination further reveals the historical and lasting importance of education and the significance of its modern ubiquity." At the conclusion of that discussion, including the criminalization of teaching enslaved persons to read, the court concludes:
There are two main takeaways from this history of racial discrimination in education, as well as from past interventions by the courts. First, access to literacy was viewed as a prerequisite to the exercise of political power, with a strong correlation between those who were viewed as equal citizens entitled to self-governance and those who were provided access to education by the state. Second, when faced with exclusion from public education, would-be students have repeatedly been forced to rely on the courts for relief. The denials of education seen in these cases and beyond are now universally accepted as serious injustices, ones that conflict with our core values as a nation. Furthermore, the substantial litigation devoted to addressing these exclusions reveals the unparalleled value assigned to literacy, which is viewed by our society as essential for students to obtain even a chance at political and economic opportunity.
As to the second Glucksberg prong, which looks for the right to be implicit in the concept of ordered liberty, the Sixth Circuit notes that the belief that education is a means of achieving equality is a belief that has persisted in the nation "since the days of Thomas Jefferson," and concludes that providing a basic minimal education is necessary to prevent arbitrary denials to children based on no fault of their own, which is "so essential to our concept of ordered liberty."
The Sixth Circuit opinion then takes up the counter-arguments, including those made by the dissenting judge, Eric Murphy (recently appointed to the Sixth Circuit and seemingly no relation to district judge Eric Murphy). The Sixth Circuit majority refutes the judicial restraint argument with an articulation, if unlabeled, of a representation-reinforcement argument, with a footnote discussing its applicability to due process as well as equal protection:
But it is unsurprising that our political process, one in which participation is effectively predicated on literacy, would fail to address a lack of access to education that is endemic to a discrete population. The affected group—students and families of students without access to literacy—is especially vulnerable and faces a built-in disadvantage at seeking political recourse. The lack of literacy of which they complain is exactly what prevents them from obtaining a basic minimal education through the normal political process. This double bind provides increased justification for heightened judicial scrutiny and the recognition of the right as fundamental.
The Sixth Circuit majority also takes up the positive/negative rights dichotomy, first arguing that the constitutional tort at issue in DeShaney v. Winnebago County of Department of Social Services (1989), has no applicability to public education, and that even if it did, it is the state that is "creating the danger" here (rather than a private actor), thus bringing the case within the state-created danger exception.
Finally, with due recognition that the case is before the Sixth Circuit on a motion to dismiss, the majority acknowledged that it would be difficult to "define the exact limits of what constitutes a basic minimum education" sufficient to provide access to literacy. However, the majority stated that it would seem to include at least three basic components: facilities, teaching, and educational materials (e.g., books). The case is therefore remanded to the district court to proceed.
But how the case will proceed is uncertain. In a usual scenario, the State would seek review. The Michigan Attorney General, Dana Nessel, however has stated that she is "overjoyed" with the Sixth Circuit's decision. (It was originally defended under a previous Michigan administration). There is also some lack of clarity regarding the proper defendant or appellant, given that the school district is now under more local control (an issue that the Sixth Circuit discussed in its mootness analysis). If a party does not seek review, there is the possibility that the en banc Sixth Circuit may decide to consider the case. Under Sixth Circuit rules and internal operating procedures, 6 I.O.P. 35(e), "any member of the en banc court may sua sponte request a poll for hearing or rehearing en banc before a party files an en banc petition" and the "clerk will immediately circulate voting forms to the en banc court." The en banc judges are judges in "regular active service" (meaning not senior judges) and including the panel judges no matter their status. It's quite possible that the dissenting judge would request a poll.
Monday, April 20, 2020
The Court issued its opinion in Ramos v. Louisiana with a majority concluding that the Sixth Amendment confers a right to a unanimous jury verdict that is incorporated against the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.
Recall from the oral argument on the very first day of the 2019-2020 term that almost all rights have now been incorporated through selective incorporation, and that the unanimous jury requirement subject to an exception of the incorporation of the trial by jury clause. As Justice Alito phrased it in an opinion for the Court in McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010) (in which a closely divided Court held that the Second Amendment is incorporated), the general rule is that rights "are all to be enforced against the States under the Fourteenth Amendment according to the same standards that protect those personal rights against federal encroachment.”
There is one exception to this general rule. The Court has held that although the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury requires a unanimous jury verdict in federal criminal trials, it does not require a unanimous jury verdict in state criminal trials. See Apodaca v. Oregon, 406 U. S. 404 (1972).
The precedential value of Apodaca, a case in which the Justices split 4-1-4, was at the center of the oral argument and is at the center of the Court's fragmented opinions in Ramos. The lone Justice in Apodaca is Justice Powell, who is specifically discussed throughout the opinions. Powell's adoption of what the Court calls the "dual-track" incorporation, and seemingly Justice Powell himself, does he does not fare very well in the Court's opinion, including quoting Powell that he was simply "unwilling to follow the Court's precedents" regarding incorporation.
Writing for the Court, Justice Gorsuch's opinion is joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kavanaugh, but not in full. Indeed, the would-be majority loses Kavanaugh regarding some of its discussions of precedent and stare decisis, and loses both Kavanaugh and Sotomayor regarding a discussion of the specific stare decisis accorded to Apodaca.
The Court clearly concludes, however, that there is a Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous jury verdict and that this right is incorporated as against the states.
Justice Thomas concurs, but renews his argument that the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is the proper vehicle for incorporation. However, unlike in McDonald, Justice Thomas' vote is not necessary to constitute a majority.
Justice Alito dissented, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, as well as for most of his opinion, by Justice Kagan.
Certainly this case is important for both the constitutional doctrine of incorporation and for constitutional criminal procedure under the Sixth Amendment. But the Justices' various opinions discussing stare decisis might be read to portend larger developments. Justice Kavanaugh's concurring opinion is most explicit in this regard: he outlines his views on stare decisis and supports his conclusion why Apocada should be overruled. Justice Alito's dissenting opinion argued for honoring stare decisis, but interestingly, Justice Kagan does not join that portion of the dissent arguing that the "reliance" in this case "far outstrips" other recently overruled cases.
Two other matters bear notice.
First, the racist roots of the non-unanimous jury verdict requirement is given attention by the Court, highlighted in Justice Sotomayor's concurring opinion, and minimized by the dissenting opinion (arguing that the opinion does not apply only to Louisiana and Oregon, but any future state that might adopt non-unanimous verdicts, even if all the lawmakers were "angels").
Second, there is the rhetoric and tone of some of the opinions. There is an evident conversation between the majority and dissent, with Gorsuch's opinion veering toward a condescending tone punctuated by rhetorical questions and Alito's opinion answering with accusatory and aggrieved notes.
But as a matter of incorporation doctrine, after last Term's Timbs v. Indiana regarding the Eighth Amendment's excessive fines provision, the Court's decision in Ramos now leaves only the Fifth Amendment grand jury requirement and the Seventh Amendment's right to a jury trial in a civil case as the federally applicable rights that are not incorporated as against the states. And then there is that Third Amendment.
Friday, March 13, 2020
The full D.C. Circuit voted to reconsider the question whether a House committee has standing to sue a former executive branch officer. The court ordered rehearing in Committee on the Judiciary v. McGahn (and House of Representatives v. Mnuchin, which raises the same standing question) and vacated the panel's earlier ruling that the Committee lacked standing.
Recall that the panel held that the Judiciary Committee lacked standing to sue McGahn, a former executive branch official. In short, the court said that federal courts can't hear pure disputes between the coordinate branches; instead, there must be a plaintiff who was personally harmed in order to get the claim into federal court.
Today's order undoes that ruling and sets the case for rehearing before the entire D.C. Circuit.
This doesn't bode well for McGahn (and Mnuchin, and the Trump Administration). But whatever the en banc court ultimately says, this case is surely headed to the Supreme Court.
Thursday, March 12, 2020
The D.C. Circuit this week upheld a district court ruling that auhorized release of the full, unredacted Mueller Report to the House Judiciary Committee. The ruling, if upheld on inevitable appeal, means that the Committee'll get its hands on the full report, plus other, supporting grand jury materials from the Mueller investigation.
The ruling deals a sharp blow to the Trump Administration and DOJ. It means that the Committee can decide for itself, based on the full Mueller Report and additional grand jury materials, whether Administration witnesses lied to Congress or to the Mueller team, and the extent to which AG Barr misrepresented the full Report. It also means that the Committee can see for itself the full extent of any collaboration between the Trump campaign and Russia, and campaign and Administration efforts to conceal any collaboration or otherwise to obstruct congressional investigations.
But don't think that this means that we'll see the full Report anytime soon. First, there's the matter of the inevitable application for a stay, and appeal. Second, the court's holding hinges, in part, on the Committee's plan to protect the material from public release and to use only those portions that it needs.
The case arose when, July 26, 2019, the Committee filed an application for release of certain grand jury materials from the Mueller investigation with the federal district court. The Committee sought release of three categories of grand jury materials: (1) all portions of the Mueller Report that were redacted pursuant to the general grand-jury secrecy rule in Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, (2) any portions of grand jury materials (transcripts, exhibits) that were referenced in those redactions, and (3) any other underlying grand jury material that related directly to certain individuals and events described in the Mueller Report.
The Committee sought release pursuant to the "judicial proceeding" exception, in Rule 6(e)(3)(E)(i), to the general rule of grand jury secrecy. The exception allows for release of grand jury materials in a "judicial proceeding," where the requesting party can demonstrate a particularized need for the material. After in camera review of a portion (but not all) of the requested materials, the district court held that the Senate's impeachment trial of President Trump met the "judicial proceeding" requirement, and that the Committee demonstrated a particularized need for the material. The court authorized release of the first two categories of grand jury material requested by the Committee.
(You might wonder how the Committee request for release relates to impeachment. Here's how: The Committee Report on Impeachment said that the conduct in the Articles of Impeachment was consistent with President Trump's behavior with regard to Russia and the Mueller investigation. Moreover, the Committee's impeachment investigation related to the Mueller report is ongoing, and may lead to addition articles of impeachment.)
The D.C. Circuit affirmed. The court held that the Senate's impeachment trial is, indeed, a "judicial proceeding" under Rule 6(e) (and that the Committee's investigation is part of, preliminary to, a Senate trial). It held that constitutional text and history, circuit precedent, and past practice all uniformly supported this conclusion. (On this point, "[i]t is only the President's categorical resistance and the Department's objection that are unprecedented.")
The court went on to say that the Committee demonstrated a particuularized need, because, among other things, the Committee may yet issue more articles of impeachment related to the President's behavior with regard to Russia and the Mueller investigation.
Judge Rao dissented. She argued that the lower court actually made two moves--one to "authorize" release of the material, and the other to "order" DOJ to release it. She agreed that the court could authorize release, but she argued that it couldn't order DOJ to release the material, because the Committee lacked standing to bring a claim against the Executive Branch under the court's recent ruling in the McGahn case.
Both the court and Judge Griffith, in concurrence, wrote that the district court did no such thing. They both reminded that grand jury materials are judicial records, and that DOJ only holds them. As a result, this wasn't a dispute between the Committee and the Executive Branch. Instead, it was merely an application by the Committee to the courts, which the Executive Branch decided to oppose.
Thursday, March 5, 2020
The issue of the Attorney General's candor is central to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation seeking the unredacted Mueller Report. In the consolidated cases of Electronic Freedom Foundation v. DOJ, and Jason Leopold & BuzzFeed News v. DOJ, the plaintiffs essentially challenge the basis of FOIA exemptions which DOJ has listed as justifying the numerous redactions.
In his Opinion today, United States District Judge for the District of Columbia, Reggie Walton, granted the plaintiffs' requests that the court conduct in camera review of the unredacted version of the Mueller Report. What makes the Opinion noteworthy is Judge Walton's explicit statements regarding the untrustworthiness of the Attorney General that justified the need for in camera review. After a detailed discussion of the circumstances, Judge Walton wrote:
Although Attorney General Barr can be commended for his effort to expeditiously release a summary of Special Counsel Mueller’s principal conclusions in the public interest, the Court is troubled by his hurried release of his March 24, 2019 letter well in advance of when the redacted version of the Mueller Report was ultimately made available to the public. The speed by which Attorney General Barr released to the public the summary of Special Counsel Mueller’s principal conclusions, coupled with the fact that Attorney General Barr failed to provide a thorough representation of the findings set forth in the Mueller Report, causes the Court to question whether Attorney General Barr’s intent was to create a one-sided narrative about the Mueller Report—a narrative that is clearly in some respects substantively at odds with the redacted version of the Mueller Report.
As noted earlier, the Court has reviewed the redacted version of the Mueller Report, Attorney General Barr’s representations made during his April 18, 2019 press conference, and Attorney General Barr’s April 18, 2019 letter. And, the Court cannot reconcile certain public representations made by Attorney General Barr with the findings in the Mueller Report. The inconsistencies between Attorney General Barr’s statements, made at a time when the public did not have access to the redacted version of the Mueller Report to assess the veracity of his statements, and portions of the redacted version of the Mueller Report that conflict with those statements cause the Court to seriously question whether Attorney General Barr made a calculated attempt to influence public discourse about the Mueller Report in favor of President Trump despite certain findings in the redacted version of the Mueller Report to the contrary.
These circumstances generally, and Attorney General Barr’s lack of candor specifically, call into question Attorney General Barr’s credibility and in turn, the Department’s representation that “all of the information redacted from the version of the [Mueller] Report released by [ ] Attorney General [Barr]” is protected from disclosure by its claimed FOIA exemptions. In the Court’s view, Attorney General Barr’s representation that the Mueller Report would be “subject only to those redactions required by law or by compelling law enforcement, national security, or personal privacy interests” cannot be credited without the Court’s independent verification in light of Attorney General Barr’s conduct and misleading public statements about the findings in the Mueller Report, id., Ex. 7 (April 18, 2019 Letter) at 3, and it would be disingenuous for the Court to conclude that the redactions of the Mueller Report pursuant to the FOIA are not tainted by Attorney General Barr’s actions and representations.
[brackets in original; bolding added].
Later in the opinion, Judge Walton continued:
Here, although it is with great consternation, true to the oath that the undersigned took upon becoming a federal judge, and the need for the American public to have faith in the judicial process, considering the record in this case, the Court must conclude that the actions of Attorney General Barr and his representations about the Mueller Report preclude the Court’s acceptance of the validity of the Department’s redactions without its independent verification. Adherence to the FOIA’s objective of keeping the American public informed of what its government is up to demands nothing less.
submit the unredacted version of the Mueller Report to the Court for in camera review. If, after reviewing the unredacted version of the Mueller Report, the Court concludes that all of the information has been appropriately withheld under the claimed FOIA exemptions, it will issue a supplemental Memorandum Opinion and Order granting the Department’s motion for summary judgment on that ground and denying the plaintiffs’ cross- motions. On the other hand, if the Court concludes after its in camera review that any of the redacted information was inappropriately withheld, it will issue a supplemental Memorandum Opinion and Order that comports with that finding.
A federal judge's opinion that the Attorney General's "lack of candor" supports an independent judicial examination of redacted material implicates separation of powers issues, to be sure, but it is also yet another indication of the lack of confidence in the Attorney General.