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.
Thursday, September 7, 2023
A federal court ruled that Texas Governor Greg Abbott's border barrier in the Rio Grande likely violates the federal Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899. The court ordered the state to reposition the barrier by September 15 pending the outcome of the case. Texas is appealing.
The court said that the barrier is either a "boom" or "other structure" in the Rio Grande, and therefore violated the RHA, which prohibits erecting such things that obstruct the navigable waters of the U.S. without the federal government's permission. (The state argued that the Rio Grande isn't navigable where the barrier is located. The court, in a lengthy discussion, rejected that argument.)
More interestingly, the court rejected the state's argument that the barrier was authorized by the Constitution's Self-Defense Clause in Article I, Section 10, Clause 3. That provision says that "[n]o State shall, without the Consent of Congress . . . engage in War, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent Danger as will not admit of delay." The court said that it's the federal government's job (not the states') to determine when there's an "invasion," and that it's not a job for the federal courts.
In response to the state's claim that the Clause allows Governor Abbott to "engage in War" whenever he determines that there's an invasion, the court noted the Governor's power to wage war would be "subject to no oversight" and "would give the Governor of Texas more power than is possessed by the President of the United States without authorization from Congress." The court called the claim "breathtaking."
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.
Tuesday, June 27, 2023
The Supreme Court today flatly and unequivocally rejected a strong version of the independent state legislature theory (ISL)--the theory that state legislatures have plenary authority over rules for federal elections in their states. But it left open federal judicial review of state-court decisions on state election laws that are out of line (to one degree or another, the Court didn't specify) with state law.
ISL is the theory that a state legislature--and a state legislature alone--can set state election law for federal elections. It's based on a literal reading of the U.S. Constitution's Election Clause, which says "the Legislature" of each state shall prescribe "[t]he Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives . . . ." According to ISL, "the Legislature" means the state legislature alone, and not the broader lawmaking authority of the state under the state constitution (which includes state-court judicial review of state legislative acts, the governor's signature or veto, etc.). The Constitution's Electors Clause reads similarly, and similarly grants authority to "the Legislature" to direct the process for the appointment of the state's electors in a presidential election.
The ruling means that state courts can continue to rule state election laws unconstitutional under the state constitution, and that they can continue to interpret state election laws in light of their own state law. In other words, state courts continue to have the power of judicial review in the area of state election law. But at the same time, state court review itself is subject to federal court review if the state court goes too far out of line. (Again, how far we do not know.)
It's not clear how this'll all play out. But there are some certainties. For one, the Court flatly rejected the strong version of ISL--that state legislatures have plenary power to set state election law for federal elections, without review by state courts and not subject to state constitutional requirements. For another, to the extent that former President Trump's team relied on the strong version ISL to overturn the electoral results in several states in the 2020 presidential election (it was central to that effort), and to the extent that the Court's approach to ISL is the same under the Elections Clause and the Electors Clause (they appear to be exactly the same), the Court closed the door to these kinds of shenanigans in future presidential elections. In particular, today's ruling seems to flatly foreclose any effort by a state legislature to circumvent existing state law and state-court rulings and unilaterally appoint electors to whomever it wishes.
And just to put an exclamation point behind all of that, Chief Justice Roberts wrote the Court's opinion (joined by Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, Kavanaugh, Barrett, and Jackson). That's significant, because Chief Justice Roberts dissented in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the Court's latest foray into the Elections Clause, upholding Arizona's independent redistricting commission against an ISL-type challenge. Chief Justice Roberts argued that the Court got it wrong, with a full-throated defense of ISL.
Less clear, however, is how the Supreme Court may intervene in future state-court cases involving more run-of-the-mill (but nevertheless hugely important) state election-law issues--what standard it'll use to assess those rulings, how much deference the Court will give to state courts to interpret their own state laws and state constitutions, and how the Court is likely to rule in those cases.
The case, Moore v. Harper, arose when the North Carolina legislature gerrymandered its congressional districts. Plaintiffs sued in state court, arguing that the gerrymander violated the state constitution. (They didn't sue in federal court or raise a federal claim, because the Supreme Court ruled in Rucho v. Common Cause that partisan gerrymandering claims under the federal Constitution are nonjusticiable "political questions.") The North Carolina Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiffs, ruled the congressional map unconstitutional under the state constitution, and remanded the case to the state trial court to oversee the drawing of a new map.
North Carolina legislative leaders sought Supreme Court review, arguing that the state supreme court violated the federal Constitution's Elections Clause by overturning the state legislature's election law (the congressional districting map). After the Court agreed to hear the case, however, the state supreme court (after a judicial election) reversed course and ruled that partisan gerrymandering isn't justiciable under the state constitution. The court withdrew and "overruled" its earlier decisions.
After that latest move by the state supreme court, the case raised two issues at the U.S. Supreme Court: (1) Is the case moot in light of the state supreme court's latest ruling, and (2) does the state supreme court's first ruling (the one overturning the legislature's partisan gerrymander under the state constitution) violate the federal Elections Clause.
As to mootness, the Court held that the case still presented a live controversy, because the state supreme court's most recent ruling didn't change that court's first judgment that halted the state's use of its gerrymandered map. (It only ruled that the question was nonjusticiable.) Moreover, the Court said that federal law authorized it to hear the case. "The record shows that Harper I finally decided the Elections Clause question, the judgment in that case continues to bind the parties before us, and the 2021 congressional maps would again take effect in North Carolina were we to reverse. Accordingly, we have jurisdiction under both Article III and [28 U.S.C. Sec. 1257(a)]."
As to the merits, the Court held that the idea that state courts can review state legislative acts under the state constitution and state laws was hard-wired into our federal constitutional system even before the framing, that state-court judicial review is therefore part of the state's lawmaking authority, and that state-court judicial review is part of "the Legislature" under the Election Clause. The Court said that Court precedent supported this result.
The Court went on to say that the Supreme Court could still review those state-court rulings that are out of line with the federal Constitution or state law (including the state constitution). But it didn't provide a standard or rule for this kind of review, instead leaving it open for future cases.
Justice Kavanaugh concurred, noting that the Court didn't set a standard, but arguing for the standard that Chief Justice Rehnquist pushed in Bush v. Gore: "whether the state court 'impermissibly distorted' state law 'beyond what a fair reading required.'"
Justice Thomas dissented on mootness (joined by Justices Alito and Gorsuch) and on the merits (joined only by Justice Gorsuch). He also noted the Court's lack of standard for future cases, saying that he "would hesitate long before committing the Federal Judiciary to this uncertain path," especially in "an advisory opinion, in a moot case . . . ."
Tuesday, June 13, 2023
Fifth Circuit Says President Can Impose Vaccine Mandate on Guardmembers, but not Punish Them for Noncompliance
The Fifth Circuit ruled that President Biden likely lacked authority to enforce a federal COVID vaccine mandate on state national guard members who aren't called up for federal service. The ruling gives state governors broad authority to decline to enforce (and thus undermine) certain federal readiness requirements on state national guard members.
The case, Abbott v. Biden, tested the federal government's authority to punish not-called-up state national guard members for failing to comply with the federal COVID vaccine requirement. (Everybody agreed that the federal government could punish national guard members who are called up to federal service. But that wasn't at issue in the case.) Governor Abbott argued that President Biden lacked authority to punish, and that punishment was arbitrary and capricious in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.
The Fifth Circuit ruled for Abbott. The court said that under the Constitution's militia clauses, the President can impose a vaccine requirement, but the President can't punish not-called-up guard members for noncompliance. The court's analysis turned on the language of the "organizing clause," which says (with emphasis),
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.
The court held that only the states, and not the federal government, could enforce the vaccine mandate against not-called-up guard members, because enforcement is part of "governing." The court said that enforcement is not part of "disciplining" (which would have allowed the federal government to enforce even against not-called-up guard members), because "disciplining" at the founding meant educating and instructing, not enforcing or punishing.
As to the APA issue, the court remanded the case for further consideration of whether federal punishment was arbitrary and capricious in light of Abbott's argument that punishing guard members would undermine the guard's ability to do its job. The court quoted Abbott's argument:
Guardsmen are not mere supplement to the federal military, but a vital part of each State's ability to secure its citizens' property, liberty, and lives--a vitality that is sapped by drumming Guardsmen out of militia service [as punishment for failure to take the vaccine]. The Defendants' failure to weigh those considerations before upending the Texas National Guard's chain of command requires that the Enforcement Memoranda be set aside.
Thursday, June 8, 2023
The Supreme Court ruled today that an individual can sue to enforce rights under the Federal Nursing Home Reform Act. The Court declined the defendant's invitation to rewrite the law on individual suits to enforce rights in spending-power legislation, and reaffirmed its long-standing approach to individual suits under such acts.
The ruling is a win for plaintiffs, insofar as it didn't disturb the Court's approach to individual lawsuits to enforce rights in conditioned-spending programs.
The case, Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County v. Talevski, arose out of a nursing-home patient's lawsuit against the home for administering certain restraints and discharging him without meeting certain preconditions, both in violation of the FNHRA. The home argued in response that Talevski couldn't sue (under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983) to enforce provisions of the FNHRA, because Congress enacted the FNHRA under its spending power. (The FNHRA is a conditioned-spending program: Congress imposes conditions under the FNHRA on states when they accept federal funds--in this case, Medicaid funds--and the federal government can enforce those conditions by withholding federal funds. The conditions are different than an ordinary federal regulatory requirement, enacted under one of Congress's regulatory powers (like the Commerce Clause), because states that object to the conditions can opt out by declining federal funds.)
The home argued that individual plaintiffs could never sue under Section 1983 to enforce rights under conditioned-spending programs. The argument went like this: conditioned-spending programs are like contracts between the federal government and a state; an individual protected by anything in a conditioned-spending program is a third-party to the contract; and common law at the time of the adoption of Section 1983 did not allow third parties to sue to enforce contractual provisions.
The Court flatly rejected this argument. The Court said that the common law was ambiguous on this point, that a plaintiff's suit was more like a tort (not a third-party enforcement of a contract), and that Court precedent long recognized that individuals could sue to enforce rights in conditioned-spending programs.
The Court went on to apply that precedent and say that the FNHRA unambiguously conferred individual rights, and that nothing in the statute precluded private enforcement of those rights.
Justice Jackson wrote the majority opinion, joined by all but Justices Thomas and Alito. Justice Gorsuch wrote a concurrence arguing that these cases may raise anti-commandeering problems--an issue for another day. Justice Barrett wrote a concurrence, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, emphasizing that the standard for individual enforcement of rights in spending-power legislation is high.
Justice Thomas dissented, arguing that Congress's spending authority is much narrower than the Court has acknowledged, and that it doesn't include a regulatory power (including power to authorize individual lawsuits to enforce rights in conditioned-spending programs). Justice Alito also dissented, joined by Justice Thomas, arguing that the remedial scheme in the FNHRA forecloses any individual cause of action to enforce the rights in the Act.
Wednesday, June 7, 2023
The Supreme Court ruled last week that the National Labor Relations Act didn't preempt an employer's state lawsuit against a union for damages resulting from a strike. The ruling is a blow to employees' right to strike under the NLRA and the role of the National Labor Relations Board in determining the scope of that right.
The case, Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. Teamsters, arose when employees of Glacier, a cement company, began a strike when they were slated to deliver cement. Because wet cement dries quickly, Glacier had to figure out how to save or dispose of cement already in the trucks, and what to do to protect its trucks.
Glacier sued the union in state court for lost cement, but the union argued that the employees' right to strike in the NLRA preempted the suit. The state supreme court sided with the union, and Glacier took the case to the Court.
The Court, in an 8-1 ruling by Justice Barrett, reversed. The Court ruled that the right to strike in the NLRA was a qualified (not absolute) right, and, citing NLRB precedent, that it didn't protect workers who failed to take "reasonable precautions" to protect the employer's property. The Court acknowledged that under Court precedent the NLRB preempts state law even when the two only arguably conflict--Garmon preemption, after San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon--but it held that the union's strike wasn't even arguably protected, because the employees so clearly failed to take "reasonable precautions" to protect Glacier's property (at least on Glacier's complaint, as this was all on the pleadings).
The ruling allows Glacier's case to move forward in the state courts.
Still, there may be a hitch. That's because after the state supreme court ruled, the NLRB general counsel filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the NLRB on behalf of Glacier's employees. The complaint alleged that Glacier violated the employee's right to strike under the NLRA. The NLRB hasn't yet ruled on the complaint. But if it concludes that Glacier violated the employees' right to strike, any state court ruling for Glacier would conflict, and under ordinary conflict preemption, the state case would have to be dismissed. (The NLRB could conclude that the employees have a right to strike, even though the Supreme Court said the opposite, because the NLRB will conduct a full adversarial hearing on the evidence, while the Court ruled only on Glacier's complaint.)
Justice Thomas concurred, joined by Justice Gorsuch, and argued that the Court should reconsider Garmon preemption in an appropriate case. Justice Alito also concurred, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, arguing that the case was even easier than the majority said, because the employees intentionally damaged Glacier's property.
Justice Jackson filed a lone dissent. She argued that the Court had no business hearing the case until the NLRB ruled on the complaint (because that's how Garmon preemption is supposed to work, and a ruling for the employees would mean that the NLRA and state tort liability would at least arguably conflict), and that in any event the Court misapplied the "reasonable precaution" rule.
Thursday, May 11, 2023
The Supreme Court ruled today that Congress did not abrogate sovereign immunity of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico (as an arm of Puerto Rico) under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act of 2016 (PROMESA). The ruling means that a non-profit can't sue the Board for its records.
The case, Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico v. Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, Inc., arose when CPI sued the Board in federal court to obtain its records. The Board argued that it was immune; CPI responded that Congress abrogated immunity under PROMESA.
The Court rejected CPI's claim. Justice Kagan wrote for all but Justice Thomas that PROMESA did not contain a sufficiently "clear statement" abrogating sovereign immunity. In particular, she said that PROMESA doesn't provide that the Board or Puerto Rico is subject to suit, and it doesn't create a cause of action against them. She acknowledged that PROMESA says that "any action against the Oversight Board, and any action otherwise arising out of" PROMESA "shall be brought" in the Federal District Court sitting in Puerto Rico. But she wrote that this provision and others in PROMESA serve other functions, not abrogation. For example, she wrote that this provision accounts for other statutes' abrogation of sovereign immunity (like Title VII), and doesn't constitute an independent abrogation. In other words, PROMESA's references to lawsuits against the Board apply to suits based on other causes of action, where Congress has abrogated immunity; they do not categorically abrogate immunity for all claims against the Board.
Justice Thomas argued in dissent that the Board lacked immunity in the first place. (The Court assumed, but didn't decide, that the Board had immunity.)
The Supreme Court ruled today that California's Prop 12, which prohibits the in-state sale of whole pork meat that comes from breeding pigs that are "confined in a cruel manner," did not violate the Dormant Commerce Clause. The ruling means that Prop 12 stays on the books. It also means that the familiar Dormant Commerce Clause test survives, even if the various opinions exposed fault lines on the Court.
The case, National Pork Producers Council v. Ross, tested how the Court would assess a neutral state law that impacted out-of-state pork producers. (Everyone agreed that Prop 12 was "neutral," in that it didn't facially discriminate against out-of-state producers.) Historically, the Court applied the balancing test from Pike v. Bruce Church, Inc. That test goes like this: When a neutral state law poses a substantial burden on interstate commerce, the law fails if its economic burdens are "clearly excessive in relation to the putative local benefits."
The Council, however, pitched a new approach. It argued that the Dormant Commerce Clause includes an "almost per se" rule that prohibits state laws that have the "practical effect of controlling commerce outside the state." The Court rejected this claim, saying that it lacked support in the Court's cases.
Alternatively, the Council claimed that Prop 12 failed the traditional Pike test. The Court rejected this claim, too, and for different reasons. Justice Gorsuch wrote for himself and Justices Thomas and Barrett that the Court was not equipped to balance the "incommensurable goods" under Pike, and that this is best left to the legislature. Justice Gorsuch wrote for himself and Justices Thomas, Sotomayor, and Kagan that the Council's complaint failed to allege a "substantial burden" on interstate commerce, so the Court shouldn't even get to the balancing. Chief Justice Roberts (concurring in part and dissenting in part) wrote for himself and Justices Alito, Kavanaugh, and Jackson that the Council alleged a "substantial burden" and that the Court should remand for balancing. (The Ninth Circuit dismissed the case based on lack of a substantial burden and therefore didn't balance.)
That's a little complicated, so let's try this:
-Five justices (Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Barrett) agreed that Prop 12 stays on the books.
-Six justices (Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Kavanaugh) agreed that the core Pike test, including its balancing of economic burdens against putative benefits, remain the law for nondiscriminatory state actions.
-Four justices (Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Kavanaugh, and Jackson) said that Prop 12 created a substantial burden. They argued that the Court should consider not only "compliance costs," but also "market-wide consequences of compliance," in determining whether a state law creates a substantial burden.
-Justice Barrett separately agreed that Prop 12 created a substantial burden, but only if Pike balancing were workable in the first place. But she argued that it's not, at least in this case. (Justice Barrett didn't formally join any part of Chief Justice Roberts's opinion. She made this point (citing Chief Justice Roberts's opinion) in a separate concurrence.)
-Taken together, the last two bullets mean that five justices agree that the Court should consider both "compliance costs" and "consequential harms" in assessing whether a state law substantially burdens the interstate economy and thus triggers the balancing test.
-Four justices (Justices Gorsuch, Thomas, Sotomayor, and Kagan) said that Prop 12 didn't create a substantial burden on interstate commerce, and so there's no need to consider whether its economic burdens are excessive in relation to the putative local benefits.
-Three justices (Justices Gorsuch, Thomas, and Barrett) said that Pike's balancing test is unworkable. This approach would limit Pike to cases where a state law discriminates against interstate commerce or where a state law regulates the instrumentalities of interstate commerce (and not to cases where a state law doesn't discriminate). According to Justice Kavanaugh, this approach "would essentially overrule the Pike balancing test."
-Justice Kavanaugh wrote separately to argue that Prop 12 might violate the Import-Export Clause, the Privileges and Immunities Clause, and the Full Faith and Credit Clause.
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.
Saturday, July 2, 2022
The Supreme Court this week ruled in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta that States have authority to prosecute crimes committed by non-Native Americans against Native Americans on Tribal lands. The ruling deals a sharp blow to tribal sovereignty and expands the power of the States in Indian country.
The Court's reasoning amounts to this: (1) States have sovereign authority--in particular, the power to enforce State law--within their borders; (2) Indian country exists within States; (3) therefore, absent congressional override, States have the power to enforce State law against non-Native Americans in Indian country. (The Court held that Congress did not override, or preempt, this power.)
The ruling upholds a State-court conviction of Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta for child neglect of his step-daughter (a member of the Cherokee Tribe) on Cherokee land.
The ruling drew a lengthy dissent by Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Gorsuch carefully traced the history and status of Indian country and tribal sovereignty under the Constitution, demonstrating "a foundational rule that would persist for over 200 years: Native American Tribes retain their sovereignty unless and until Congress ordains otherwise." He also took sharp aim at Oklahoma's cynical efforts to encroach on tribal sovereignty, and at the nature of the case itself:
Really, though, this case has less to do with where Mr. Castro-Huerta serves his time and much more to do with Oklahoma's effort to gain a legal foothold for its wish to exercise jurisdiction over crimes involving tribal members on tribal lands. To succeed, Oklahoma must disavow adverse rulings from its own courts; disregard its 1991 recognition that it lacks legal authority to try cases of this sort; and ignore fundamental principles of tribal sovereignty, a treaty, the Oklahoma Enabling Act, its own state constitution, and Public Law 280. Oklahoma must pursue a proposition so novel and so unlikely that in over two centuries not a single State has successfully attempted it in this Court. Incredibly, too, the defense of tribal interests against the State's gambit falls to a non-Indian criminal defendant. The real party in interest here isn't Mr. Castro-Huerta but the Cherokee, a Tribe of 400,000 members with its own government. Yet the Cherokee have no voice as parties in these proceedings; they and other Tribes are relegated to the filing of amicus briefs.
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.
Friday, October 22, 2021
The Supreme Court today declined to halt the Texas abortion ban, S.B. 8, but expedited appeals by abortion providers and the Biden administration in two separate orders today.
Today's actions by the Court mean that Texas's law stays in place while the appeals proceed at the Supreme Court. The Court set a super-fast briefing schedule and slated oral argument in both cases for November 1.
In the Biden administration appeal, the Court limited the case to whether the United States can sue Texas, state court judges, state court clerks, other state officials, and private parties to prohibit S.B. 8 from being enforced. Justice Sotomayor dissented, arguing that the Court's failure to halt the law pending appeal effectively means that women can't get abortions in Texas. (We posted on the Biden administration appeal most recently here.)
In the doctors' appeal, the Court will decide both whether the doctors can sue state judges, state officials, and private individuals, and, if so, whether S.B. 8 is unconstitutional.
(Remember that the Court will hear yet another case testing a state's abortion ban--Mississippi's ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. That case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, puts Roe and Casey front and center. Still, there may be room in the case for the Court to uphold the law without flat-out overruling Roe. Oral argument in Dobbs is set for December 1.)
Tuesday, October 19, 2021
The federal government yesterday asked the Supreme Court to reinstate a lower court injunction against Texas's S.B. 8, the state law that effectively shut down nearly all abortions in the state. The move came after the Fifth Circuit stayed the district court's injunction pending appeal.
This'll be the second trip that S.B. 8 makes to the high court. Recall that the Court in an earlier pre-enforcement lawsuit allowed S.B. 8 to go into effect. The Court ruled that the plaintiffs in that earlier case sued the wrong defendants, state judicial officers and private individuals who said that they'd enforce S.B. 8.
The federal government's suit is tailored to navigate that procedural problem in the earlier case and put the issue of S.B. 8's constitutionality squarely before the Court.
In order to do this, the federal government sued Texas itself (not its officers or judges, and no private individuals). The government argues that it can do this in order "to vindicate two distinct sovereign interests":
First, to the extent S.B. 8 interferes with the federal government's own activities, it is preempted and violates the doctrine of intergovernmental immunity. Second, S.B. 8 is an affront to the United States' sovereign interests in maintaining the supremacy of federal law and ensuring that the traditional mechanisms of judicial review endorsed by Congress and this Court remain available to challenge unconstitutional state laws. The United States has authority to seek equitable relief to vindicate both interests.
(That first interest goes to government obligations to assist certain individuals, like those incarcerated in federal prison, in getting an abortion. If the government honors that obligation for incarcerated women in Texas, it can be subject to civil suit under S.B. 8 in Texas courts. According to the government, this means that S.B. 8 is preempted by those federal obligations, and that S.B. 8, in allowing suits against the United States, violates the government's immunity.)
As a result, the government argues that its suit avoids the wrong-defendant problem in the earlier suit. After all, Texas itself created the mechanism that outsourced enforcement of S.B. 8 to private parties, and so Texas itself must be accountable in court.
The government asked the Court to vacate the Fifth Circuit's stay, or to grant cert. before judgment and set the case for argument this Term.
Monday, August 23, 2021
Fourth Circuit Says Fed Courts Can't Hear State Claims of Teacher Fired for Using Wrong Pronouns for Student
The Fourth Circuit on Friday ruled that the federal courts lacked jurisdiction to hear a case of a Virginia teacher who was fired for using an incorrect pronoun for a student. The ruling means that the teacher's claims stay in the Virginia state courts.
The case, Vlaming v. West Point School Board, arose when teacher Peter Vlaming was fired for refusing to use a male pronoun for a student who recently gender-transitioned to male. Vlaming sued in Virginia state court, arguing that his termination violated state constitutional due process, free speech, and free exercise, and state statutory rights--all state claims. The Board moved to remove the case to federal court, arguing that Vlaming's complaint raised federal Title IX issues (because Title IX compelled the Board to take action against Vlaming), and that Vlaming's state constitutional claims turned on the parallel federal constitutional provisions, because Virginia interprets these state constitutional provisions in lock step with the federal Constitution.
The Fourth Circuit rejected the arguments. It ruled that a federal defense alone (here, Title IX) can't create federal jurisdiction where the complaint alleges no federal jurisdiction, and that Virginia's practice of interpreting its constitution in lock step with the federal Constitution can't create federal jurisdiction, because Virginia isn't required to interpret its constitution in this way, and it might not in any given case (including this one).
The ruling means that the federal courts won't hear the case. But Vlaming and the Board can make their arguments (including the Board's Title IX defense) when it proceeds in state court.
Friday, April 30, 2021
The Sixth Circuit ruled that enforcement of Kentucky's anti-price-gouging laws to Kentucky products sold on Amazon doesn't clearly violate the dormant commerce clause. The preliminary ruling allows the Kentucky AG to enforce the state's anti-price-gouging laws against Kentucky businesses who sell products on Amazon, even though Amazon rules mean that those businesses must sell their products for the same price to customers in different states.
The case, Online Merchants Guild v. Cameron, arose when Kentucky businesses started charging outsized prices for hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, masks, and other cleaning and COVID-protective products on Amazon. The state AG opened civil price-gouging investigations, and the businesses sued.
The businesses argued that application of the state's anti-price-gouging laws would require them to drop their prices for products sold in Kentucky and, under Amazon's rule that retailers sell their products for a single price to customers in different states, other states as well. They claimed that this meant that Kentucky's laws would apply extraterritorially and thus create a nationwide "price ceiling," in violation of the dormant commerce clause.
The district court agreed and granted a preliminary injunction. But the Sixth Circuit reversed.
The court held that any extraterritorial effect of the state's laws was due to Amazon, not the laws themselves, and that Amazon's rules broke any "direct or inevitable" link between the state laws and their effects:
It does not follow, however, that Kentucky's price-gouging laws are unconstitutional--a state law's effect on out-of-state commerce must be direct or inevitable to be invalid under the extraterritoriality doctrine. That is not the case here because the effect of Kentucky's price-gouging laws depends entirely upon Amazon's independent decisions in how it structures its online marketplace. If Amazon allowed for state-specific pricing or allowed third-party sellers to limit where their goods were sold--and no one contends that Amazon lacks the power to structure its marketplace in this fashion--then there would be no effect at all on interstate commerce (or at most the effect would be de minimis).
In other words, without Amazon's rule, the Kentucky AG could enforce state laws against these Kentucky businesses, reducing the prices they charge to Kentuckians, but still allowing them to charge outsized prices to customers in other states.
The court vacated the district court's preliminary injunction and remanded for further proceedings.
The Second Circuit ruled that the New York State Board of Law Examiners didn't waive state sovereign immunity under the federal Rehabilitation Act, even though certain state courts of original jurisdiction did. As a result, a bar applicant who was denied an accommodation could not sue the Board for monetary damages.
The case, T.W. v. New York State Board of Law Examiners, began when the Board denied T.W. a requested accommodation for the bar exam. T.W. sued under the Rehabilitation Act, but the Board argued that it enjoyed state sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. The Board claimed that it didn't waive immunity under the Rehabilitation Act, because it didn't receive federal funding and it wasn't a "program or activity" of a "department, agency . . . [or] instrumentality" that had received funding. (The Rehab Act conditions the receipt of federal funds on waiver of state sovereign immunity.)
The Second Circuit agreed with the Board. The court first rejected T.W.'s claim that the Board received federal funding (and thus waived state sovereign immunity) because other state agencies provide reimbursement to bar applicants for the applicants' own out-of-pocket exam fees. "No money from [the other state agencies] ever gets paid to the Board; the money gets paid directly to the candidate after she has paid her examination fees." Moreover, "[t]he Board is, at most, an indirect beneficiary of the federal funding that [the other state agencies] receive, but this alone does not waive the Board's immunity."
Next, the court held that while some state trial courts received federal funding, the Board wasn't part of those courts. The court acknowledged that some state specialty trial courts received federal funding. It held that the relevant "department or agency" that received federal funding was therefore the state courts of original jurisdiction (and not the state's overall Unified Court System). But because the Board isn't part of the state's courts of original jurisdiction, the Board didn't waive immunity.
The Ninth Circuit ruled that the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act did not preempt California's law that classifies workers as either employees or independent contractors. The ruling means that the state law stays on the books.
The case is a win for workers, because employers are much more likely to have to treat their workers as "employees" under state law (with all the attendant benefits) rather than contractors.
The case splits with the First Circuit, which held in Schwann v. FedEx that the FAAAA did not preempt an identical Massachusetts law.
The case, California Trucking Association v. Bonta, arose when the CTA sued the state AG to halt to the state's enforcement of its "AB-5 test" for classifying workers as either employees or independent contractors. The AB-5 test says that workers are "employees," not independent contractors, "unless the hiring entity demonstrates that all of the following conditions are satisfied":
(A) the person is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work . . . . (B) The person performs work that is entirely outside the usual course of the hiring entity's business. (C) The person is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as that involved in the work performed.
As compared to prior state law, the test leans heavily in favor of "employee," because it presumes a worker is an employee unless a "hiring entity" could establish all three parts of the test, one of which (part (B)) was previously only a factor (not a determinate element) in the analysis.
According to CTA, SB-5 would increase its members' costs "by as much as 150% or more," because they'd have to treat more workers as "employees."
CTA claimed that the FAAAA preempted SB-5. It pointed to the FAAAA's express preemption clause, which says that the federal act preempts any state law "related to a price, route, or service of any motor carrier . . . with respect to the transportation of property."
The Ninth Circuit rejected the claim. The court ruled that AB-5 applies across industries (and doesn't single out the trucking industry) and only affects the employment relation, not "a price, route, or service" (at least not directly).
Because AB-5 is a generally applicable law that impacts a motor carrier's business at the point where the motor carrier interacts with its workers, and the law affects motor carriers' relation with their workers in a manner analogous to the worker classification laws we have previously upheld . . . AB-5 is not significantly related to rates, routes, or services. Therefore, we conclude that the [FAAAA] does not preempt AB-5 as applied to motor carriers.
Judge Bennett dissented, arguing that "the majority's rule ignores the possibility [as here] that a state law might affect a motor carrier's relationship with its workforce and have a significant impact on that motor carrier's prices, routes, or services . . . ."
Saturday, April 17, 2021
The Seventh Circuit yesterday rebuffed the Cook County Clerk's challenge to a pair of consent decrees designed to monitor political patronage practices in that office and others. The ruling means that the decrees stay on the books (or, more precisely, on the district court's docket). But at the same time, the court warned that federalism concerns counsel in favor of resolving the case, and clearing the decrees from the court's docket, "swift[ly]."
The case, Shakman v. Clerk of Cook County, originated with two consent decrees, the "Shakman Decrees," from 1972 and 1991. The 1972 Decree enjoined Chicago and Cook County officials from "conditioning, basing or knowingly prejudicing or affecting any term or aspect of governmental employment, with respect to one who is at the time already a governmental employee, upon or because of any political reason or factor." The 1991 Decree expanded the 1972 Decree to cover hiring decisions: among other things, it required officials to post "prior public notice of the opportunity to apply for and be hired for" all positions, with just a few exceptions. (The City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District have since demonstrated substantial compliance and have been dismissed.)
While the Shakman Decrees remained on the district court's docket, there wasn't really any significant activity until 2019. That's when Shakman, the Voters Organization, and other plaintiffs moved for the appointment of a special master to monitor the Clerk's compliance with the Decrees. The plaintiffs claimed that the Clerk's hiring practices violated the 1991 Decree and that the Clerk took retaliatory actions against employees in violation of the 1972 Decree.
The Clerk opposed the motion and asked the magistrate judge to vacate both Decrees. After discovery and an evidentiary hearing, the magistrate judge found that the Clerk violated the Decrees, appointed a special master, and rejected the Clerk's request to vacate the Decrees. The Clerk appealed, arguing that the plaintiffs lacked standing, that the case raised nonjusticiable political questions, and that the Clerk's actions didn't violate the Decrees.
The Seventh Circuit disagreed. The court ruled first that the plaintiffs had standing, because at least one member of the Voters Organization was a current employee in the Clerk's office who refused to engage in political patronage and suffered reprisal. The court said next that the case didn't raise a nonjusticiable political question, because "both the legal right and applicable standard here"--free association under Elrod v. Burns--"are evident and judicially manageable." Finally, the court held that the magistrate judge didn't clearly err in concluding that the Clerk's "ongoing violations reflect the precise political patronage the Consent Decrees seek to end."
The court noted, however, that federalism considerations counsel in favor of ending the Decrees now, or very soon:
Our federal structure, including the Article III Case or Controversy requirement, does not contemplate federal courts putting units of state or local government under what amounts to static and permanent consent decrees. Federal injunctions interfere with local control over local decision making, and, in turn, local democracy does not work as our federal constitutional design envisions.
Wednesday, March 17, 2021
Twenty-one Republican state attorneys general wrote a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen yesterday objecting to provisions in the recently enacted federal stimulus bill that place certain restrictions on the $350 billion that is directed to cities, counties, and states.
In particular, the AGs objected to a provision that prohibits recipients of the funding from
us[ing] the funds . . . to either directly or indirectly offset a reduction in the net tax revenue of such State or territory resulting from a change in law, regulation, or administrative interpretation during the covered period that reduces any tax (by providing for a reduction in a rate, a rebate, a deduction, a credit, or otherwise) or delays the imposition of any tax or tax increase.
The AGs argue that the provision could prohibit states from reducing taxes in areas that have nothing to do with COVID relief or the stimulus bill, and that this would violate federalism principles. They say that the restriction, as written, is ambiguous, does not relate to COVID stimulus or relief, and "would effectively commandeer half of the States' fiscal ledgers, compelling States to adopt the one-way revenue ratchet of the current Congress for the next three years"--in violation of the conditioned spending test in South Dakota v. Dole.
According to the AGs, "such federal usurpation of state tax policy would represent the greatest attempted invasion of state sovereignty by Congress in the history of our Republic."
The AGs ask Secretary Yellen to confirm that the restriction "does not prohibit States from generally providing tax relief through the kinds of measures listed and discussed above and other, similar measures, but at most precludes express use of the funds provided under the Act for direct tax cuts rather than for the purposes specified by the Act." Without such assurance, they say that'll "take appropriate additional action . . . . "
UPDATE: Turns out Ohio, whose AG did not sign the letter, didn't want to wait for an answer from Yellen: it filed suit against Yellen, alleging more-or-less the same claims.