Saturday, April 17, 2021

Seventh Circuit Upholds Anti-Patronage Consent Decrees Against Cook County Clerk

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.

April 17, 2021 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Federalism, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Political Question Doctrine | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

State AGs Object to COVID Stimulus Plan Restrictions UPDATE

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.

March 17, 2021 in Congressional Authority, Federalism, News, Spending Clause | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 1, 2021

Court Kicks Gohmert's Election Case Against Pence

Judge Jeremy D. Kernodle (E.D. Tx.) dismissed the lawsuit headed by Representative Louie Gohmert against Vice President Mike Pence to throw the 2020 presidential election.

The ruling in the frivolous case was not unexpected. 

The case arose when Gohmert and self-appointed Trump electors from Arizona sued VP Pence, arguing that the Electoral Count Act violates the Electors Clause and the Twelfth Amendment, and that Pence has authority to determine which slate of electors to accept when he presides over the congressional count of electoral votes on January 6. The, er, novel argument turns on the plaintiffs', um, creative reading of the Electors Clause, the Twelfth Amendment, and the Electoral Count Act.

Start with the Electors Clause. It says that "[e]ach State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . . ." 

Next, the Twelfth Amendment. It says that each state's electors meet in their respective states and vote for President and VP. The electors then transmit their votes to the President of the Senate, the VP. "The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted." The candidate winning the majority of electoral votes wins. But if no candidate gets a majority, the House selects the President, with each state delegation receiving one vote. 

Finally, the Electoral Count Act. It says that Congress must count the votes in a joint session on January 6, with the VP presiding. It says that the executive in each state shall certify the electors to the Archivist of the United States, who then transmits the certificates to Congress. It says that a state's determination of their electors is "conclusive" if the state resolved all disputes over the election pursuant to state law at least 6 days before the electors meet. (This is called the "safe harbor" date.) Under the Act, if at least one Member of the House of Representatives and one Senator objects to a state's elector votes, the House and Senate meet in separate sessions and vote on the objection--by members, not state delegations.

Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin all certified their electors to President-Elect Biden and VP-Elect Harris, pursuant to state law and the Electoral Count Act. The governors certified the electors to the Archivist. 

But then Trump electors in those states met and, without any legal authority, self-certified their votes to President Trump and VP Pence. 

The plaintiffs contend that the self-appointed Trump electors created a competing slate of electors in each of these states. (They did not. The "Trump electors" named themselves electors without any legal authority and contrary to state law in each state.) They argue that "provisions . . . of the Electoral Count Act are unconstitutional insofar as they establish procedures for determining which of two or more competing slates of Presidential Electors for a given State are to be counted in the Electoral College, or how objections to a proffered slate are adjudicated, that violate the Twelfth Amendment."

In particular, they argue that the states appointed Biden electors in violation of the Electors Clause, because the state governors and secretaries of state certified those electors, even though the Electors Clause specifies that this is a function for the legislature. (In fact, the legislatures in each of those states already determined the manner of appointing electors by enacting state law that awards electors to the majority winner of the popular vote in those states.) 

Moreover, they argue that the dispute-resolution procedure in the Electoral Count Act "limits or eliminates [the VP's] exclusive authority and sole discretion under the Twelfth Amendment to determine which slates of electors for a State, or neither, may be counted." (In fact, the Twelfth Amendment does not give this authority to the VP. The VP's role is ceremonial, simply to read and count the certified results from each state.)

Finally, they argue that the dispute-resolution procedure in the Electoral Count Act "replaces the Twelfth Amendment's dispute resolution procedure--under which the House of Representatives has sole authority to choose the President." (In fact, the Twelfth Amendment dispute resolution procedure only applies when no candidate won a majority of electoral votes. The Electoral Count Act procedure applies when a member of both Houses objects to a state's slate of electors. Those are different dispute resolution processes, to be sure, but for very different kinds of dispute.) 

The plaintiffs asked the court to hold that the VP has "exclusive authority and sole discretion in determining which electoral votes to count for a given State." 

But the court ruled that the plaintiffs lacked standing. It said that Gohmert lacked standing, because he asserted only an institutional harm (to the House), and not a personal harm. "Congressman Gohmert's alleged injury is 'a type of institutional injury (the diminution of legislative power), which necessarily damages all Members of Congress.'" It said that the Trump "electors" lacked standing, because any alleged injury that they suffered was not created by VP Pence, the defendant. Moreover, it said that both Gohmert and the Trump "electors" failed to show that their requested relief (an order that VP Pence has exclusive discretion to determine which electoral votes to count) would redress their injuries, because VP Pence might not determine the electoral votes in their favor. 

The plaintiffs vowed to appeal. But don't expect this case to go anywhere . . . on standing, or on the merits.

January 1, 2021 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Elections and Voting, Federalism, News, Opinion Analysis, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 14, 2020

Court Upholds State Pharmacy Reimbursement Regulation Against ERISA Preemption Claim

The Supreme Court on Friday upheld Arkansas's law regulating the price that pharmacy benefit managers reimburse pharmacies for the cost of drugs covered by drug-prescription plans against an ERISA preemption challenge. The ruling leaves Arkansas's law in place.

The case, Rutledge v. Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, tested Arkansas's Act 900. That Act requires pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs, who act as intermediaries between prescription-drug plans and pharmacies that use them) to reimburse pharmacies (under the PBMs' maximum allowable cost schedules) at or above the rate that pharmacies paid to buy the drug from a wholesaler. The law was designed to ensure that pharmacies, particularly rural and independent pharmacies, could cover their costs and stay in business.

A national trade association of PBMs sued, arguing that the provision was preempted by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act. ERISA pre-empts "any and all State laws insofar as they may not or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan" covered by ERISA.

The Supreme Court disagreed. Justice Sotomayor wrote for a unanimous Court (except Justice Barrett, who did not participate) that "ERISA does not pre-empt state rate regulations that merely increase costs or alter incentives for ERISA plans without forcing plans to adopt any particular scheme of substantive coverage." She said that Act 900, which is "merely a form of cost regulation," is just such a plan. Moreover, she said that Act 900 doesn't "refer to" ERISA, because it doesn't "act[] immediately and exclusively upon ERISA plans or where the existence of ERISA plans is essential to the law's operation." In short, "it applies to PBMs whether or not they manage an ERISA plan." 

Justice Thomas concurred, and wrote separately to again express "doubt" as to "our ERISA pre-emption jurisprudence." 

December 14, 2020 in Cases and Case Materials, Federalism, News, Opinion Analysis, Preemption | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Primer on Trump's Electors Clause Claims, Updated

The Supreme Court on Friday dismissed Texas's suit against Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin alleging violations of the Constitution's Electors Clause. The ruling was based on Texas's lack of standing--that Texas didn't allege a sufficiently specific and personal harm, caused by the defendants' actions and redressable by the Court, to punch its ticket to the Supreme Court. Importantly, the ruling did not touch the merits, the Electors Clause question.

UPDATE below.

The ruling thus left open a possibility that President Trump or Trump voters (or somebody else with a stronger standing case than Texas) might file similar cases against the same states, also alleging violations of the Electors Clause. (Indeed, a federal court in Wisconsin on Saturday rejected just such a case; more on that below.) So I thought it might be worth a beat to examine this claim.

President Trump and supporters argue that Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin violated the Constitution's Electors Clause by using election rules that weren't specifically sanctioned by the state legislatures in those states. The Electors Clause, in Article II, Section 1, specifies how states appoint electors to the electoral college; it says, "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . . ." President Trump and his supporters focus on the phrase "in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct," and argue that a state legislature--and only a state legislature--has authority to direct how the state appoints electors.

That claim has some support on the Supreme Court. In other election cases this fall, Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch seemed to endorse it. For example, Justice Alito (joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch) wrote in Pennsylvania v. Boockvar that the "question has national importance, and there is a strong likelihood that the State Supreme Court decision [extending the deadline for mail-in votes] violates the Federal Constitution."

The provisions of the Federal Constitution conferring on state legislatures, not state courts, the authority to make rules governing federal elections would be meaningless if a state court could override the rules adopted by the legislature simply by claiming that a state constitutional provision gave the courts the authority to make whatever rules it thought appropriate for the conduct of a fair election.

UPDATE: Justice Alito's opinion in Boockvar was carefully limited to the situation where a state supreme court "override[s] the rules adopted by the legislature." His opinion doesn't extend to situations where a state supreme court merely interprets the rules of the legislature, or where another body acts pursuant to legislative delegation. Justice Alito's opinion, by its own terms, therefore doesn't endorse the strongest version of a legislature-only rule (say, invalidating a state court ruling that merely interprets state law), but instead only a weaker version, where a state court outright "override[s] the rules adopted by the legislature." Many thanks to Professor Bruce Ledewitz, Duquesne, for pointing this out.

(Similarly, in an earlier, unrelated case, Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, Chief Justice Roberts argued in dissent that a similar constitutional provision, the Elections Clause (which gives "the Legislature" of each state the power to regulate "[t]he Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections") does not allow state voters to vest redistricting power in an independent commission. Chief Justice Roberts's position in that case doesn't necessarily mean that he'd also endorse a "legislature-only" reading of the Electors Clause. But it does suggest that he'd at least be open to it.)

Under that "legislature-only" reading of the Electors Clause, President Trump and his supporters argue that Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin violated the Clause, because executive agencies or courts in those states adopted voting rules that weren't specifically enacted by the legislatures in those states. For example, in Boockvar, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered that the state accept mail-in ballots up to three days after election day, even though state law set an election-day deadline. The court held that the extension was required to comply with the Free and Equal Elections Clause of the state constitution. In other states, executive officials or judges issued similar orders in order to accommodate voters in an age of Covid-19. President Trump and his supporters claimed that these accommodations violated the Electors Clause, because they weren't specifically authorized by the state legislatures.

On the other side, the states argue that the Electors Clause authorizes only state legislatures only to direct the "Manner" of appointing electors--and that the state legislatures did this when they specified under state law that each state's electors would go to the popular-vote winner in the state. The states say that the "Manner" of appointing electors only extends that far--to the specification how a state would appoint its electors (by popular vote, for example)--and not to every jot and tittle of state election administration. Read more broadly, they say that the Clause would allow anyone to successfully challenge in federal court any aspect of the way a state ran a presidential election, so long as it wasn't specifically adopted by the state's legislature--a clearly absurd result. 

Moreover, they say that a state "legislative" act isn't just an act of the "legislature," but rather an act of the state's lawmaking apparatus. This includes the governor's signature, the executive's enforcement, and the state courts' review. (That's what the majority said about the Elections Clause in Arizona State Legislature.)

Finally, even if the Electors Clause means that the legislature--and the legislature alone--can enact the election rules for presidential elections, the states say that they complied, at least with regard to executive enforcement of election law. That's because the legislature delegated authority to enforce the election law to executive agencies. 

A federal court in Wisconsin put these arguments to the test just yesterday, in Trump v. Wisconsin Elections Commission . . . and ruled flatly against the President. The court held that the Wisconsin legislature did direct the manner of appointing electors--by specifying that they'd be appointed according to the popular vote in the state. It held that the "Manner" of appointment didn't extend to particular voting rules and the administration of the election: "[The President's] argument confuses and conflates the 'Manner' of appointing presidential electors--popular election--with underlying rules of election administration." And it held that even if the "Manner" of appointing electors includes election administration, Wisconsin satisfied the Clause, because the state legislature delegated authority to the Wisconsin Elections Commission to make certain rules on the administration of an election.

Stepping back, this is why Trump opponents have argued that Texas's lawsuit, if successful, would have unduly encroached on state sovereignty: because it would've meant that federal courts would've second-guessed every aspect of a state's lawmaking and administration of an election (the legislature's act, the executive's enforcement, and the state courts' say-so as to how it must operate under the state constitution). The Trump position would allow federal courts a free license to invalidate any aspect of election administration that the state legislature did not specifically enact--no matter how much the legislative act violated state law or the state constitution. 

Still, if the question gets to the Supreme Court--a big "if," given all the other problems with these lawsuits--at least three justices seem ready to rule for a "legislature-only" interpretation of the Electors Clause. That position, if endorsed by five justices, could favor President Trump in one or more of these states, where executive officers or judges adopted election rules without specific authorization (as in Wisconsin) from the legislature.

December 13, 2020 in Cases and Case Materials, Elections and Voting, Federalism, News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 12, 2020

SCOTUS Rebuffs Texas's Challenge to Battleground State Election Results

The Supreme Court on Friday dismissed Texas's challenge to election results in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin for lack of standing. The brief order simply read,

The State of Texas's motion for leave to file a bill of complaint is denied for lack of standing under Article III of the Constitution. Texas has not demonstrated a judicially cognizable interest in the manner in which another State conducts its elections. All other pending motions are dismissed as moot.

Texas argued that it asserted two harms sufficient to satisfy standing: (1) its citizens were harmed in their votes for president by other states' failures to comply with the Elections Clause; and (2) Texas itself was harmed in its role (as a state) in the Senate, where the vice president could break a tie.

The Court's ruling rejects those theories. It did not say anything about the Elections Clause, however. 

Justice Alito filed a statement, joined by Justice Thomas, reiterating their view that the Court lacked "discretion to deny the filing of a bill of complaint in a case that falls within our original jurisdiction."

The ruling ends this challenge. But Trump supporters have already indicated that they'll seek to file similar challenges on behalf of individual voters in these states.

The Court's full docket, with the parties' filings and the many amicus filings, is here.

December 12, 2020 in Cases and Case Materials, Elections and Voting, Federalism, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Second Circuit Rebuffs Trump's Case Against NY Grand Jury Subpoena

The Second Circuit today flatly rejected President Trump's case challenging the NY grand jury subpoena for his financial records. The ruling follows a summer Supreme Court decision saying that the grand jury was not categorically (and constitutionally) barred from seeking the President's financial records.

The ruling in Trump v. Vance deals a serious blow to President Trump and his efforts to keep his financial records under wraps. (The subpoena goes to far more than President Trump's taxes.) But the President will surely seek to appeal.

The ruling says that President Trump failed even to plausibly plead (under the Iqbal and Twombly pleading standard) that the grand jury subpoena was overbroad or issued in bad faith. At the same time, it noted that going forward the President might need some accommodations in state criminal proceedings in order to avoid intruding on the President's Article II responsibilities. (The President didn't raise categorical constitutional claims in this round--the Supreme Court already rejected those claims in its ruling this summer--and did not specifically claim that complying with this subpoena would interfere with his Article II responsibilities.)

The court's decision was issued per curiam (without naming the judges involved), suggesting that the case was easy and that the ruling was perfunctory. 

October 7, 2020 in Cases and Case Materials, Executive Authority, Executive Privilege, Federalism, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 24, 2020

Federal Judge Enjoins Federal Agents Acting Against Journalists and Legal Observers in Portland, Oregon

In a Temporary Restraining  Order and Opinion in Index Newspapers v. City of Portland, Judge Michael Simon enjoined the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ("DHS"); and the U.S. Marshals Service ("USMS") — the "Federal Defendants" — from arresting and otherwise interfering with journalists and legal observers who are documenting the troublesome and now widely reported events in Portland, Oregon, which have attracted Congressional attention.

Judge Simon's relatively brief TRO opinion, first finds that the plaintiffs have standing, and then applying the TRO criteria importantly finds that there is a likelihood the plaintiffs would prevail on the First Amendment claim. Judge Simon found both that there was sufficient circumstantial evidence of retaliatory intent against First Amendment rights and that plaintiffs had a right of access under Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court (1986).  Judge Simon found fault with many of the specific arguments of the federal defendants, including the unworkability of the remedy:

The Federal Defendants also argue that closure is essential because allowing some people to remain after a dispersal order is not practicable and is unworkable. This argument is belied by the fact that this precise remedy has been working for 21 days with the Portland Police Bureau. Indeed, after issuing the first TRO directed against the City, the Court specifically invited the City to move for amendment or modification if the original TRO was not working, or address any problems at the preliminary injunction phase. Instead, the City stipulated to a preliminary injunction that was nearly identical to the original TRO, with the addition of a clause relating to seized property. The fact that the City never asked for any modification and then stipulated to a preliminary injunction is compelling evidence that exempting journalists and legal observers is workable. When asked at oral argument why it could be workable for City police but not federal officers, counsel for the Federal Defendants responded that the current protests are chaotic. But as the Federal Defendants have emphatically argued, Portland has been subject to the protests nonstop for every night for more than 50 nights, and purportedly that is why the federal officers were sent to Portland. There is no evidence that the previous 21 nights were any less chaotic. Indeed, the Federal Defendants' describe chaotic events over the Fourth of July weekend through July 7th, including involving Portland police, and the previous TRO was issued on July 2nd and was in effect at that time. The workability of the previous TRO also shows that there is a less restrictive means than exclusion or force that is available.

The TRO is quite specific as to journalists as well as to legal observers, providing in paragraph 5, to "facilitate the Federal Defendants' identification of Legal Observers protected under this Order, the following shall be considered indicia of being a Legal Observer: wearing a green National Lawyers' Guild-issued or authorized Legal Observer hat (typically a green NLG hat) or wearing a blue ACLU-issued or authorized Legal Observer vest."

The TRO lasts for 14 days; the litigation will undoubtedly last much longer.

 

 

July 24, 2020 in Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Speech, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Court Say State Grand Jury Can Subpoena President's Taxes, Financial Records

The Supreme Court ruled today that a state grand jury is not categorically prohibited from issuing a subpoena for the President's taxes and financial records. But the ruling leaves open the possibility that the President could argue that the subpoena violates state law, or that a particular subpoena, including this one, violates the separation of powers.

Because of that last bit, the ruling means that the grand jury probably won't get its hands on President Trump's taxes anytime soon. That's because the President is almost sure to pitch these arguments in state or federal court, and the litigation will likely take some time. That means that the ruling is likely a short-term win for the President.

But at the same time, the ruling is a dramatic loss for the presidency. That's because the Court unconditionally rejected the President's sweeping and categorical claim of absolute immunity against state criminal processes. President Trump overargued this, as did the DOJ, and the Court reined him in.

Here's our oral argument preview; here's the review.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Kavanaugh wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment, joined by Justice Gorsuch. Justice Thomas dissented, and Justice Alito dissented.

The Court held that Presidents long lacked immunity from federal criminal subpoenas, going all the way back to the Burr trial. It ruled that there's nothing different about a state criminal subpoena that would categorically immunize the President (as the president argued), or even raise the bar for a presidential subpoena (as DOJ argued). In particular, the Court rejected the President's claims that a state grand jury subpoena could divert the President's attention, stigmatize the President (and undermine his leadership), and harass the President in violation of federalism principles. It similarly rejected DOJ's similar reasons for a higher bar for presidential subpoenas.

The Court nevertheless left open the possibility that the President (like anybody else) could challenge a state grand jury subpoena under state law, like law that bans bad faith subpoenas or those that create an undue burden. It also left open the possibility that the President could challenge a specific subpoena on the basis that a particular subpoena unduly interfered with his duties as President. (The problem in this case was that the President claimed a categorical immunity from state subpoenas.) The President will probably take up these claims now, leading to yet another round of litigation, and probably preventing the grand jury from getting the documents and records anytime soon.

Justice Kavanaugh, joined by Justice Gorsuch, concurred in the judgment but wrote separately to underscore that there may be state law or constitutional problems with this particular subpoena, depending on how the courts balance out the competing interests of the state courts and the President.

Justice Thomas dissented, agreeing with the majority that the President isn't categorically immune from the grand jury's issuance of the subpoena, but that he might be immune from the enforcement of it.

Justice Alito dissented, too, agreeing that the President isn't categorically immune, but arguing for a heightened standard, given the nature of the Presidency and the federalism system.

 

July 9, 2020 in Cases and Case Materials, Executive Authority, Federalism, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

SCOTUS Broadens Ministerial Exemption from Anti-Discrimination Laws

In its opinion in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, consolidated with St. James School v. Biel, the Court extended the application of the First Amendment's "ministerial exception" first accepted by the Court in 2012 in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, to the teachers at schools run by religious organizations in the cases, and seemingly to all teachers employed by religiously-affiliated schools. 

Writing for the Court, Alito's opinion — joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Breyer, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh — held that although the teachers in these cases were not actually "ministers" by title and did not have as much as religious training as the teacher in Hosanna-Tabor, they are encompassed in the same exception from enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.  The Court stated that the First Amendment protects a religious institution's independence on matters of "faith and doctrine" without interference from secular authorities, including selection of its "ministers." But who should qualify as a "minister" subject to this exemption? Recall that the factors of Hosanna-Tabor figured in the oral argument (and recall also that they figured in the Ninth Circuit's opinions). But here, the Court stated that while there may be factors,  "What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does," rather than what the employee is titled. Moreover, the "religious institution's explanation of the role of such employees in the life of the religion" is important. Indeed, the religious institution's "explanation" seems determinative. The Court rejected a "rigid formula" for determining whether an employee is within the ministerial exception, concluding instead that:

When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.

The brief concurring opinion by Thomas, joined by Gorsuch, argues that the Court should go further and essentially make the implicit more explicit: the Court should decline to ever weigh in "on the theological question of which positions qualify as 'ministerial.' "

Sotomayor dissenting opinion, joined by Ginsburg, begins:

Two employers fired their employees allegedly because one had breast cancer and the other was elderly. Purporting to rely on this Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (2012), the majority shields those employers from disability and age-discrimination claims. In the Court’s view, because the employees taught short religion modules at Catholic elementary schools, they were “ministers” of the Catholic faith and thus could be fired for any reason, whether religious or nonreligious, benign or bigoted, without legal recourse. The Court reaches this result even though the teachers taught primarily secular subjects, lacked substantial religious titles and training, and were not even required to be Catholic. In foreclosing the teachers’ claims, the Court skews the facts, ignores the applicable standard of review, and collapses Hosanna-Tabor’s careful analysis into a single consideration: whether a church thinks its employees play an important religious role. Because that simplistic approach has no basis in law and strips thousands of school- teachers of their legal protections, I respectfully dissent.

For the dissent, the Court's conclusion has "grave consequences," noting that it is estimated that over 100,000 secular teachers employed by religiously-affiliated schools are now without employment protections. Further, it contrasts Esponiza v. Montana Dept of Revenue, decided this Term, in which the Court "lamented a perceived 'discrimination against religion,'" but here "it swings the pendulum in the extreme opposite direction, permitting religious entities to discriminate widely and with impunity for reasons wholly divorced from religious beliefs." The dissent concludes with a hope that the Court will be "deft" enough to "cabin the consequences" of this ministerial exception, but given the current composition of the Court, that hope seems a narrow one.

July 8, 2020 in Disability, Establishment Clause, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Opinion Analysis, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, July 6, 2020

Supreme Court Says States Can Punish Faithless Electors

A unanimous Supreme Court today upheld a state law that punishes "faithless electors." The ruling means that states can continue to impose fines on individuals appointed to vote in the Electoral College who pledge their vote to one candidate, but actually vote for another. In a companion case (in a brief per curiam opinion), the Court held that a state could remove and replace a faithless elector with an elector who would vote for the winner of the state's popular vote.

The case, Chiafalo v. Washington, arose when three Washington electors who pledged to support Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election actually voted for someone else. (They hoped that they could encourage other electors to do the same, and deny Donald Trump the presidency.) The state imposed a $1000 fine for each "faithless elector" for violating their pledge to support the candidate who won the state's popular vote.

The pledge wasn't a problem. The Court in 1952 upheld a pledge requirement, and a state's power to appoint only those electors who would vote for the candidate of the winning political party. But that case, Ray v. Blair, didn't answer the question whether a state could punish a faithless elector.

Today's ruling says yes.

Justice Kagan wrote for the Court. She noted first that the appointment power in Article II, Section 1, authorizes each state to appoint electors "in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct." This power to appoint "includes a power to condition [the] appointment--that is, to say what the elector must do for the appointment to take effect," including requiring the elector to pledge to cast a vote in the Electoral College that reflects the popular vote in the state. Then: "And nothing in the Constitution expressly prohibits States from taking away presidential electors' voting discretion as Washington does." In short, "a law penalizing faithless voting (like a law merely barring that practice) is an exercise of the State's power to impose conditions on the appointment of electors."

The Court also wrote that the practice of punishing a faithless elector is consistent with "long settled and established practice." "Washington's law, penalizing a pledge's breach, is only another in the same vein. It reflects a tradition more than two centuries old. In that practice, electors are not free agents; they are to vote for the candidate whom the State's voters have chosen."

Justice Thomas concurred, joined by Justice Gorsuch. Justice Thomas argued that the question isn't answered by Article II (or anything else in the Constitution), and so gets its answer from the federalism formula in the Tenth Amendment: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

July 6, 2020 in Cases and Case Materials, Elections and Voting, Federalism, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

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

SCOTUS Holds Louisiana Abortion Restrictions Unconstitutional

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."

June 29, 2020 in Abortion, Courts and Judging, Federalism, Fourteenth Amendment, Gender, Opinion Analysis, Reproductive Rights, Standing, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

SCOTUS Upholds Appointments to Puerto Rico's Financial Oversight Board

A unanimous Supreme Court yesterday ruled in Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico v. Auerelius Investment, LLC, that the President's appointment of members to the Financial Oversight Board, without Senate advice and consent, didn't violate (or even implicate) the Appointments Clause.

The ruling is a win for the Board and its authority to carry Puerto Rico through bankruptcy.

The Court said first that the Appointments Clause applies to all officers of the United States, including officers who operate within territories. But it went on to say that Board members in this case aren't officers of the United States, and the Appointments Clause therefore doesn't restrict their appointment.

The Court looked functionally to the Board's powers and duties and concluded that they're local, not national. The Court said that Board members therefore aren't officers of the United States covered by the Appointments Clause.

Justice Thomas concurred. He argued that the Court should have looked to the original public meaning of the Appointments Clause, not the "ill-defined path" that it took, and come out with the same result.

Justice Sotomayor concurred, too. She argued that given Puerto Rico's history--and, in particular, the compact between Puerto Rico and the federal government that established home rule for the island--it wasn't clear that Congress could create the Board at all. But nevertheless concurred, because the parties hadn't raised that issue:

These cases raise serious questions about when, if ever, the Federal Government may constitutionally exercise authority to establish territorial officers in a Territory like Puerto Rico, where Congress seemingly ceded that authority long ago to Puerto Rico itself. . . .

The Board members, tasked with determining the financial fate of a self-governing Territory, exist in a twilight zone of accountability, neither selected by Puerto Rico itself nor subject to the strictures of the Appointments Clause. I am skeptical that the Constitution countenances this freewheeling exercise of control over a population that the Federal Government has explicitly agreed to recognize as operating under a government of their own choosing, pursuant to a constitution of their own choosing. . . . Nevertheless, because these issues are not properly presented in these cases, I reluctantly concur in the judgment.

 

June 2, 2020 in Appointment and Removal Powers, Cases and Case Materials, Executive Authority, Federalism, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Court Hears Cases Testing States' Control Over Presidential Electors

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Chiafalo v. Washington and Colorado v. Baca, both testing whether and how states can control the votes of their presidential electors. Both cases involved "faithless electors"--electors who, in violation of state law, voted for individuals in the 2016 election who did not win the state's popular vote.

Maybe the only thing that was clear from the arguments today is that . . . nothing is clear. Text doesn't answer the question. Original understanding is equivocal. Past practice can be manipulated by both sides. Even the practical effect of a ruling either way is uncertain, or at least reasonably disputed. The Court searched for a limiting principle from both sides, in both cases, but came up blank.

All this indeterminacy only served to illustrate how screwed up our system of electing a president really is. As the arguments revealed, that system, the Electoral College, appears to have no firm or settled basis in any variety of democratic theory, or any theory of federalism. If it did, we'd at least have some guidance on the question.

Given the indeterminacy, we might expect the Court to punt on cases like these under the political question doctrine. Indeed, the issue bears a remarkable resemblance to partisan gerrymandering--no settled constitutional test, could benefit or harm either major party--on which the Court declined to rule most recently in Rucho v. Common Cause. If anything, the text, history, and precedent are even less determinate here than in partisan gerrymandering cases.

So: Look for the Court to leave things as they are--to allow the states to control their electors, or allow the states to set them free, as the states wish. As Justice Kagan asked, "What would you say if I said that if I think that there's silence, the best thing to do is leave it to the states and not impose any constitutional requirement on them?"

May 13, 2020 in Cases and Case Materials, Federalism, News, Oral Argument Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fifth Circuit Upholds Title IX's State Sovereign Immunity Waiver Condition

The Fifth Circuit yesterday upheld the state sovereign immunity waiver for state recipients of Title IX funding. The ruling means that state recipients of Title IX can be sued for monetary damages in federal court for violations of Title IX.

That's the same result that's long been on the books in the Fifth Circuit and all others to have considered the question.

But this case is notable because it rejects a novel claim by Louisiana (LSU was the defendant) that the Supreme Court's Medicaid ruling in NFIB v. Sebelius changed the landscape as to Title IX waiver. In particular, the state claimed that under NFIB the Title IX waiver was unduly coercive.

Not so, said the court. The court said that NFIB "does not unequivocally alter Dole's conditional-spending analysis," under which the Court previously upheld the Title IX waiver. Moreover, "[t]he threat of LSU losing what amounts to just under 10% of its funding is more like the 'relatively mild encouragement' of a state losing 5% of its highway funding . . . than the 'gun to the head' of a state losing all of its Medicaid funding [in NFIB]."

May 13, 2020 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Eleventh Amendment, Federalism, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

High Court Hears Arguments in Trump Tax Cases

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Trump v. Mazars and Trump v. Vance, the cases testing congressional authority and a local D.A.'s authority, respectively, to subpoena President Trump's financial records from his accounting firm and bank.

We previewed Mazars here; we previewed Vance here.

As usual, it's hard to say where the Court is going to land based on oral arguments. (It might be even harder than usual, given the teleconference format.) But based on questioning, it seems likely that the Court in Mazars could issue a split decision, upholding one or two subpoenas while overturning the other(s). In both cases, the Court'll seriously balance the interference (or not) of the subpoenas with the President's ability to do the job. Look for that balance to split along conventional ideological lines, with Chief Justice Roberts right in the center.

Another possibility: the Court could set a new standard for these subpoenas and remand for reconsideration.

Whatever the Court does, two things seem very likely. First, the rulings will have a dramatic effect on the separation of powers and checks and balances, likely shifting power and immunities (to some degree, more or less) to the President. Second, likely the only way we see President Trump's financial records and taxes before the 2020 election is if the Court outright upholds one of the House Committee's subpoenas. (Even if the Court rules against the President in Vance, grand jury secrecy rules mean that we probably may not see those records until after the election.)

The two cases raise very different questions. Mazars is all about the separation of powers--congressional authority to issue subpoenas to third parties for the President's personal information--while Vance is about federalism and presidential immunities--a local prosecutor's authority, through a grand jury, to subpoena that same material, and the President's claim of absolute immunity from any criminal process.

Despite the differences, though, much of the arguments in both cases focused on how the subpoenas, wherever they came from, would, or would not, "interfere" with the President's execution of the Article II powers. The President's attorneys argued repeatedly that allowing subpoenas in this case could open the door to free-flowing subpoenas from every congressional committee and every local prosecutor, and would thus impede the President's ability to do the job. On the other hand, attorneys for the Committees and the D.A. noted that these particular subpoenas are directed at a third party and don't require the President to do anything.

Look for the Court to incorporate this into its reasoning--the extent to which the subpoenas interfere with the President's job, either in fact (where there's no real evidence that President Trump has actually been distracted by these subpoenas) or in theory (where we can imagine that a future President might be distracted by a flurry of future subpoenas).

Questions in Mazars also focused on the three committees' precise authorities and reasons for their subpoenas. Did they have authority under the House's standing rules? Did the House's subsequent "ratification" of them suffice to demonstrate that the whole House supported them? Were the reasons within a "legitimate legislative purpose"?

These questions suggest that the Court may examine each subpoena separately, and could well uphold one or two, while overturning the other(s).

We also heard some pretty breathtaking claims by the President's attorneys about the scope of presidential powers and immunities. In Mazars we heard that Congress can't regulate the President at all (even if it can regulate other offices in the Executive Branch), and therefore can't investigate (and subpoena) material to help enact law that would regulate the President. In Vance, we heard that the President is absolutely immune from all criminal processes.

The government, weighing in as amicus in both cases in support of the President, dialed back the President's most extreme and categorical positions, and argued instead for a more stringent test for subpoenas directed at the President's personal information. This could give the Court an attractive "middle" position. (This isn't really a middle position. But the President's extreme claims make the government's position look like a middle position.)

On the other side, Congress's attorney in Mazars struggled to identify a limit to Congress's power to subpoena--an issue that several Justices thumped on. The lack of a limiting principle could come back to bite the House Committees, even if these particular subpoenas might've come well within a reasonable limiting principle. That's because if the Court rules for the Committees, it'll have to say why--knowing that the reason will apply to all future congressional subpoenas. If the Committees can't give the Court a limiting principle, the Court could conclude that they see no limit on their authority. And that may be reason enough for at least some of the Justices to rule against them.

May 12, 2020 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, Executive Privilege, Federalism, News, Oral Argument Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 11, 2020

Court to Test President's Immunity from Grand Jury Subpoena for Financial Records

The Supreme Court will hear oral argument tomorrow in Trump v. Vance, the case testing whether the President is immune from a state grand jury subpoena for his records that have nothing to do with his official duties. Here's my Preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:

FACTS

In the summer of 2018, the New York County District Attorney’s Office (the Office) opened an investigation into possible criminal misconduct in activities connected to the Trump Organization. The Office obtained information about transactions and tax strategies by individuals and organizations that raised the prospect that a continuing pattern of criminal activity might have occurred within the Office’s jurisdiction and within the statute of limitations. Importantly, the Office has not eliminated President Trump himself as a potential target.

These transactions include the now-familiar “hush money” payments during the 2016 presidential campaign that President Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, paid to two women with whom President Trump had extra-marital affairs. Cohen admitted that he violated campaign finance laws in coordination with, and at the direction of, a person later identified as President Trump. Cohen pleaded guilty to the charges and is now serving a prison sentence.

Around the time of Cohen’s guilty plea, at the request of federal prosecutors and in order to avoid disruption of the ongoing federal investigation, the Office deferred its own investigation. After the Office learned in July 2019 that the federal investigation had concluded without any further charges, the Office then resumed its investigation.

On August 1, 2019, the Office served the Trump Organization with a grand jury subpoena for records and communications concerning certain financial transactions. The Office later informed the Trump Organization’s attorney that the subpoena also required production of certain tax returns. Over the next several months, the Trump Organization produced responsive documents, but not the tax returns.

On August 29, 2019, the Office served a grand jury subpoena on Mazars USA, LLP, President Trump’s accounting firm, for financial and tax records from January 1, 2011, to the date of the subpoena, including records for President Trump himself and entities he owned before becoming President. The Office largely patterned the Mazars subpoena on a similar subpoena to Mazars issued by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. The Office’s Mazars subpoena does not seek any official government communications or involve any official presidential conduct.

Soon after the Office issued the Mazars subpoena, the Trump Organization informed the Office that they believed that the request for tax records implicated constitutional considerations. The Office agreed to temporarily suspend the tax portion of the subpoena to allow the Trump Organziation to challenge it.

President Trump then sued the Office and Mazars, seeking preliminary injunctive relief to stop Mazars from complying with the subpoena. (The “Vance” in the case name refers to Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., District Attorney of the County of New York.) President Trump argued that as sitting President he enjoyed absolute immunity from any form of “criminal process” or “investigation,” including a subpoena issued to a third party like Mazars.

The district court dismissed the case, ruling that it belonged in state court, not federal court. Alternatively, the district court denied injunctive relief, holding that the President’s claim of absolute immunity from criminal process “finds no support in the Constitution’s text or history” or in the Court’s precedents. The Second Circuit vacated the district court’s ruling that the case belonged in state court, but affirmed its alternative ruling on the merits. This appeal followed.

CASE ANALYSIS

The Supreme Court has ruled in a series of cases that the President enjoys certain privileges and immunities from various judicial processes. For example, the Court held in United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974), that the President had an “executive privilege” against disclosure of confidential presidential communications. At the same time, however, the Court ruled that a sufficiently important countervailing need for the information (like a federal court’s need for evidence in a criminal trial, as in that case) could outweigh the President’s interest in confidential communications.

As to immunities, the Court held in Nixon v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 731 (1982), that the President is absolutely immune from civil liability for official acts taken while in office. But the Court held in Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681 (1997), that the President is not immune from civil suits for unofficial actions taken before he came to office.

The Department of Justice has long held the position that the President is immune from criminal prosecution while in office. But the Supreme Court has never addressed that question, or the related question whether the President is immune from any criminal process that might lead up to a prosecution. That last question is what this case is all about.

President Trump argues that as sitting President he is absolutely immune from any criminal process that targets him, including the Office’s subpoena to a third party like Mazars. President Trump claims that subjecting him to any criminal process at all would interfere with the President’s “unparalleled responsibilities to defend the nation, manage foreign and domestic affairs, and execute federal law.” Moreover, he contends that subjecting the President to any criminal process would “stigmatize the President in ways that will frustrate his ability to effectively represent the United States in both domestic and foreign affairs.” President Trump says that Congress can hold the President to account through impeachment, and that state and federal prosecutors can hold the President to account through criminal processes after he leaves office, but that the President is absolutely immune from criminal process while in office. President Trump asserts that this is consistent with the text, structure, and history of the Constitution and with the longstanding position of the Justice Department.

President Trump argues that the need for absolute immunity from criminal processes is particularly acute when it comes to state and local prosecutors. He says that these processes (unlike federal criminal processes, from which the President also claims absolute immunity) threaten federal supremacy under the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause. In particular, President Trump contends that without absolute immunity, state and local prosecutors, motivated only by their own parochial and political interests, could impede the work of the President and the President’s duties to the entire, undivided nation.

President Trump argues that the Mazars subpoena violates all of these principles. He says that there is “no dispute” that the Mazars subpoena targets him, given that it specifically seeks his records. And he says that it doesn’t matter that his compliance with this subpoena would not burden his official duties (because it is directed as Mazars, not him); instead, he claims that the President’s absolute immunity is based on the mere threat of a like subpoena (or other criminal process) by every state and local prosecutor.

President Trump argues that the Court’s precedents support his position. He points to Nixon v. Fitzgerald, where the Court held that a former President was immune from a suit for civil damages based on the President’s official acts. He says that subjecting the President to criminal processes would be even more burdensome. President Trump distinguishes Clinton and United States v. Nixon, arguing that both cases arose from federal, not state, proceedings, and that they involved different kinds of behavior or processes. Finally, President Trump argues that at the very least United States v. Nixon requires that a prosecutor show a “demonstrated, specific need” for material sought in a subpoena directed at the President, and that the Office failed to show this.

The government weighs in to support President Trump and echoes many of these themes. The government, however, stops short of arguing for absolute immunity from all criminal processes and instead argues only that President Trump is immune from “any process that would risk impairing the independence of his office or interfering with the performance of its functions.” In evaluating any particular process, the government contends that the Court should apply, at a minimum, the “heightened standard of need” in United States v. Nixon. It says that the Mazars subpoena does not meet this standard.

The Office argues in response that the President has no absolute immunity from a state grand jury subpoena for documents unrelated to the President’s official duties. The Office claims that the Court’s precedents extend immunity only to official acts (not private acts), and that the “mere risk of interference” with the President’s official functions cannot support immunity from this kind of subpoena. The Office contends that the Mazars subpoena only seeks information related to President Trump’s private acts, and only raises, at most, a “risk of interference” with the President’s official functions (because it’s directed at Mazars, not President Trump), and so the President is not immune from it.

The Office argues that this result is not altered by the President’s arguments in support of absolute immunity from all criminal processes. It says that responding to a subpoena is far less burdensome than facing indictment or prosecution, and does not stigmatize the President the way an official accusation of wrongdoing might. By way of comparison, it claims that the burdens on the President in United States v. Nixon were far greater, yet the Court still ruled against the President’s claim of privilege.

As to President Trump’s federalism claims, the Office argues that these lack merit. It says that state and local prosecutors are on the front lines of criminal law enforcement in the country, and that they are “cloaked with a presumption of regularity that makes federal interference particularly inappropriate.” Moreover, it asserts that there are other procedural safeguards—including a prohibition on state investigation of official presidential conduct—that protect the President from abusive state and local criminal processes. In any event, the Office contends that the Court already considered and dismissed President Trump’s worry that state and local prosecutors could hassle the President for political reasons when it rejected a similar argument for immunity from a private civil suit against the President in Clinton.

The Office argues further that there are good policy reasons not to provide absolute immunity to the President. For one, such immunity could effectively immunize the President from any post-office indictment and prosecution, because evidence may go stale and statutes of limitations may run. For another, immunity may impede other, related criminal investigations and prosecutions.

In short, the Office argues that there is no basis for absolute presidential immunity from all criminal processes, that there are good reasons not to provide such sweeping immunity, and that in any event the President has plenty of opportunities to claim immunities on a case-specific (and not absolute, categorical) basis.

The Office argues that the alternative test for immunity, the government’s “heightened standard of need,” derives from the Court’s test in evaluating claims of executive privilege, and has no application here. According to the Office, that’s because the subpoena here does not seek privileged material or material related to official conduct. Moreover, it says that the mere risk of the subpoena’s burden on the President is insufficient to justify a heightened standard. And it claims that such a standard would impede state and local law enforcement.

Finally, the Office argues that President Trump has failed to demonstrate that the Mazars subpoena suffers from any of the problems that may immunize the President from it. In particular, the Office says that President Trump has failed to show that it was issued in bad faith, or that it would be overly burdensome. (The Office notes that the district court already ruled on this last point, and that President Trump hasn’t produced any new evidence.)

SIGNIFICANCE

This case has obvious and much-rehearsed (maybe too much rehearsed) political significance. In short, President Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns has been a central issue of political debate since at least the 2016 primaries. A ruling for President Trump would close this particular channel that could eventually lead to public release. A ruling against him, on the other hand, would require Mazars to turn over President Trump’s taxes to the Office, and thus leave open this channel which could lead to public release. It’s not entirely clear how much this matters, however, given that so many voters are stuck in their support of or opposition to President Trump, whatever his taxes might reveal. In any event, the ruling (which will likely come down this summer) will fast become political fodder for both sides and will certainly play some role in the presidential election.

The case and its companions, Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP, and Trump v. Deutsche Bank AG, raise the specter of a secondary political effect, which is likely far more significant. That is: these cases, as much as any other this Term (given the high-profile role that President Trump’s taxes and finances continue to play in our politics), will put the Court front and center in the ongoing political debates and the 2020 presidential election. Whatever the Court says, polls on one side or the other will claim that our Supreme Court justices are really only politicians masquerading in robes. That inevitable claim could have extra resonance here, in this explosive political environment and on this uniquely red-hot political issue, and could do serious and lasting damage to our collective faith in the judiciary and to the separation of powers.

And speaking of the separation of powers, this case could fundamentally reshape our structural constitution. The Court has never come close to endorsing the President’s claimed sweeping and absolute privilege against all criminal processes. If it creates such a privilege here, the ruling will mark a dramatic shift of power away from Congress, the judiciary, and even the states—and to the Executive Branch. This is big enough that we’ll almost feel the shift in our constitutional tectonic plates.

One final point. This case, of course, is linked with Trump v. Mazars and Trump v. Deutsche Bank AG, the two cases testing congressional authority to get President Trump’s taxes. While those cases raise the same practical bottom-line question—Can anybody get at President Trump’s taxes and financial records?—they involve very different constitutional issues, and therefore have their own (also quite weighty) constitutional significance.

May 11, 2020 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, Executive Privilege, Federalism, News, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Check it Out: Finkelstein and Painter on Presidential Immunity in Trump v. Vance

Check out Claire Finkelstein and Richard Painter's piece in the NYT, Trump's Bid to Stand Above the Law--a primer on the oral arguments next week in Trump v. Vance (testing the Manhattan D.A.'s subpoena to President Trump's accountants for his financial records), including President Trump's claim of absolute executive privilege in that case.

May 9, 2020 in Cases and Case Materials, Executive Authority, Federalism, News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Sixth Circuit Recognizes Fundamental Right to Literacy

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]. 

30721475326_1e66e3b647_oAfter 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.

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April 26, 2020 in Books, Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Federalism, Fourteenth Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Race, Recent Cases | Permalink | Comments (0)