Wednesday, July 8, 2020
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.
Monday, July 6, 2020
In its opinion in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants the United States Supreme Court held a provision of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (the “TCPA”), 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(A), exempting certain calls from the prohibition of robocalls violated the First Amendment.
Recall from our discussion when certiorari was granted that the federal law prohibits calls to cell phones by use of an automated dialing system or an artificial or prerecorded voice ("robocalls") subject to three statutory exemptions including one added in 2015 for automated calls that relate to the collection of debts owed to or guaranteed by the federal government including mortgages and student loans. Recall also from our oral argument preview that the case involves the tension between marketplace of ideas and privacy.
The challengers, political consultants and similar entities, argued that this exemption violated the First Amendment as a content regulation that could not survive strict scrutiny and further that the exemption could not be severed from the TCPA. To win, the challengers had to prevail on both arguments. However, a majority of the Justices found that while the exemption violated the First Amendment, it could be severed and so the prohibition in the TCPA applicable to the challengers remained valid.
As the plurality opinion expresses it:
Six Members of the Court today conclude that Congress has impermissibly favored debt-collection speech over political and other speech, in violation of the First Amendment. Applying traditional severability principles, seven Members of the Court conclude that the entire 1991 robocall restriction should not be invalidated, but rather that the 2015 government-debt exception must be invalidated and severed from the remainder of the statute. As a result, plaintiffs still may not make political robocalls to cell phones, but their speech is now treated equally with debt-collection speech. The judgment of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is affirmed.
Despite this seeming overwhelming agreement, there is no majority opinion and the opinions demonstrate a perhaps needless fragmentation of the Justices and complication of precedent.
- Kavanaugh's plurality opinion garnered support from Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, with Thomas joining on the First Amendment issue applying strict scrutiny to a content-based regulation, but not on the severability issue (Part III).
- Sotomayor wrote a brief solo concurring opinion, concluding that although the First Amendment standard should be the more relaxed intermediate scrutiny, the standard was not satisfied. She agreed that severability of the exemption was proper.
- Breyer, joined by Ginsburg and Kagan, agreed that the provision was severable, but dissented on the First Amendment issue, finding that strict scrutiny should not apply and that the robocall exemption survived intermediate-type scrutiny ("The speech-related harm at issue here — and any related effect of the marketplace of ideas — is modest").
- Gorsuch, joined in part by Thomas, agreed that the exemption violated the First Amendment, but argued that it was no severable, or more accurately that severability should not be the issue. He argued that severing and voiding the government-debt exemption does nothing to address the injury the challengers claimed and it harms strangers to this lawsuit. The opinion calls for a reconsideration of "severability doctrine" as a whole, citing in a footnote Thomas's partial dissent in Selia Law just last week.
Thus while the outcome is clear, its ultimate basis is muddied.
Tuesday, June 30, 2020
SCOTUS Holds Free Exercise Clause Bars Application of State's No-Aid to Religious Institutions Clause in State Constitution
In its opinion in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue regarding a state tax credit scheme for student scholarships, the majority held that the scheme must be afforded to religious schools so that the Free Exercise Clause was not violated.
Recall that the Montana Supreme Court held that the tax credit program's application to religious schools was unconstitutional under its state constitution, Art. X §6 , which prohibits aid to sectarian schools. This type of no-aid provision is often referred to as (or similar to) a Blaine Amendment and frequently appears in state constitutions.
In a closely-divided decision, the Court decided that the Montana Supreme Court's decision that the tax credit program could not be extended to religious schools should be subject to struct scrutiny under the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause and did not survive. (The Court therefore stated it need not reach the equal protection clause claims). The Court essentially found that this case was more like Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer (2017) (involving playground resurfacing) and less like Locke v. Davey, 540 U.S. 712 (2004), in which the Court upheld State of Washington statutes and constitutional provisions that barred public scholarship aid to post-secondary students pursuing a degree in theology. The Court distinguishes Locke v. Davey as pertaining to what Davey proposed "to do" (become a minister) and invoking a "historic and substantial” state interest in not funding the training of clergy. Instead, the Court opined that like Trinity Lutheran, Esponiza "turns expressly on religious status and not religious use."
The Court's opinion, by Chief Justice Roberts and joined by Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, is relatively compact at 22 pages. In addition to taking time to distinguish Locke v. Davey, the opinion devotes some discussion to federalism, invoking the Supremacy Clause and Marbury v. Madison in its final section. But the opinion also engages with the dissenting Justices' positions in its text and its footnotes. Along with the concurring opinions, the overall impression of Espinoza is a fragmented Court, despite the carefully crafted majority opinion.
The concurring opinion of Thomas — joined by Gorsuch — reiterates Thomas's view that the Establishment Clause should not apply to the states; the original meaning of the clause was to prevent the federal establishment of religion while allowing states to establish their own religions. While this concurring opinion criticizes the Court's Establishment Clause opinions, it does not confront why a state constitution would not be free to take an anti-establishment position.
Gorsuch also wrote separately, seemingly to emphasize that the record contained references to religious use (exercise) and not simply religious status. Gorsuch did not discuss the federalism issues he stressed in his opinion released yesterday in June Medical Services.
Alito's thirteen page concurring opinion is an exegesis on the origins of the Montana constitutional provision as biased. Alito interestingly invokes his dissenting opinion in Ramos v. Louisiana decided earlier this Term in which he argued that the original motivation of a state law should have no bearing on its present constitutionality: "But I lost, and Ramos is now precedent. If the original motivation for the laws mattered there, it certainly matters here."
(Noteworthy perhaps is that Roberts joined Alito's dissenting opinion in Ramos and Roberts's opinion in Esponiza does spend about 3 pages discussing the Blaine amendments' problematical history, but apparently this was insufficient for Alito).
Ginsburg's dissenting opinion, joined by Kagan, pointed to an issue regarding the applicability of the Court's opinion:
By urging that it is impossible to apply the no-aid provision in harmony with the Free Exercise Clause, the Court seems to treat the no-aid provision itself as unconstitutional. Petitioners, however, disavowed a facial First Amendment challenge, and the state courts were never asked to address the constitutionality of the no- aid provision divorced from its application to a specific government benefit.
Breyer, joined in part by Kagan, essentially argued that the majority gave short-shrift to Locke v. Davey and its "play-in-the-joints" concept authored by Rehnquist as expressing the relationship between the Establishment and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Breyer's opinion is almost as long as the majority opinion, and the majority takes several opportunities to express its disagreement with Breyer, including in a two paragraph discussion, his implicit departure from precedent (e.g., "building on his solo opinion in Trinity Lutheran").
Sotomayor's dissent, also criticized by the majority in text, argues that the Court is "wrong to decide the case at all" and furthermore decides it wrongly. The Court's reframing incorrectly addressed (or seemingly addressed?) whether the longstanding state constitutional provision was constitutional. Thus, she argues, the Court has essentially issued an advisory opinion. On the merits, she contends, "the Court’s answer to its hypothetical question is incorrect." She concludes that the majority's ruling is "perverse" because while the Court once held that "the Free Exercise Clause clearly prohibits the use of state action to deny the rights of free exercise to anyone, it has never meant that a majority could use the machinery of the State to practice its beliefs,” it now departs from that balanced view.
The Court's opinion is much more divided than it seems at first blush. And the future of state constitutional provisions that prohibit taxpayer money from being used to support religious institutions remains in doubt.
June 30, 2020 in Courts and Judging, Equal Protection, Establishment Clause, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Opinion Analysis, State Constitutional Law, Supreme Court (US), Theory | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, June 29, 2020
In its opinion in Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International — or what will be called USAID v. Alliance for Open Society II — the Court's majority rejected the applicability of the First Amendment to foreign affiliates of the United States organizations who had previously prevailed in their First Amendment challenge.
Recall that AOSI I, the Court in 2013 held that the anti-prostitution pledge required of organizations seeking federal funding under the United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003, violated the First Amendment. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts opined that the provision was an unconstitutional condition ("the relevant distinction that has emerged from our cases is between conditions that define the limits of the government spending program—those that specify the activities Congress wants to subsidize—and conditions that seek to leverage funding to regulate speech outside the contours of the program itself").
Yet questions arose whether this holding extended to not only to the plaintiffs but to their "foreign affiliates." A district court and a divided Second Circuit found that foreign affiliates were included.
A divided United States Supreme Court, in an opinion written by the Court's newest Justice, held that foreign organizations have no First Amendment rights. Kavanaugh, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch, wrote that
two bedrock principles of American constitutional law and American corporate law together lead to a simple conclusion: As foreign organizations operating abroad, plaintiffs’ foreign affiliates possess no rights under the First Amendment.
Thomas authored a brief concurring opinion restating his view that AOSI I was incorrectly decided.
Justice Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion which was joined by Ginsburg and Sotomayor (note that Kagan had recused herself), arguing that the Court's opinion misapprehended the issue:
The Court, in my view, asks the wrong question and gives the wrong answer. This case is not about the First Amendment rights of foreign organizations. It is about—and has always been about—the First Amendment rights of American organizations. . . .
the question is whether the American organizations enjoy that same constitutional protection against government-compelled distortion when they speak through clearly identified affiliates that have been incorporated overseas. The answer to that question, as I see it, is yes.
Monday, June 15, 2020
In its opinion in the consolidated cases of Bostock v. Clayton County, the United States Supreme Court interpreted the prohibition of discrimination "because of sex" in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. §2000e et. seq. to include sexual and transgender identities. As we discussed in our preview, two of the consolidated cases involved sexual orientation discrimination - Altitude Express v. Zarda and Bostock v. Clayton County Board of Commissioners - while the third - R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC - involved gender identity.
The Court's opinion, authored by Justice Gorsuch and joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, states:
At bottom, these cases involve no more than the straightforward application of legal terms with plain and settled meanings. For an employer to discriminate against employees for being homosexual or transgender, the employer must intentionally discriminate against individual men and women in part because of sex. That has always been prohibited by Title VII’s plain terms—and that “should be the end of the analysis.”
After considering and rejecting the employers' arguments, the opinion concludes:
Some of those who supported adding language to Title VII to ban sex discrimination may have hoped it would derail the entire Civil Rights Act. Yet, contrary to those intentions, the bill became law. Since then, Title VII’s effects have unfolded with far-reaching consequences, some likely beyond what many in Congress or elsewhere expected.
But none of this helps decide today’s cases. Ours is a society of written laws. Judges are not free to overlook plain statutory commands on the strength of nothing more than suppositions about intentions or guesswork about expectations. In Title VII, Congress adopted broad language making it illegal for an employer to rely on an employee’s sex when deciding to fire that employee. We do not hesitate to recognize today a necessary consequence of that legislative choice: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.
The judgments of the Second and Sixth Circuits in Nos. 17–1623 and 18–107 are affirmed. The judgment of the Eleventh Circuit in No. 17–1618 is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
The Court's opinion is 33 pages or so and there are no concurring opinions. Justice Alito's dissent, joined by Justice Thomas, weighs in at over 100 pages including its appendices. There is another dissenting opinion by Justice Kavanaugh, at a more modest 27 pages.
It is the dissenting opinions that provide the constitutional law perspective to the Court's statutory interpretation decision: both claim that the Court is violating separation of powers. Justice Alito begins his lengthy dissent by stating:
There is only one word for what the Court has done today: legislation. The document that the Court releases is in the form of a judicial opinion interpreting a statute, but that is deceptive.
And the Court's most recently appointed Justice, Kavanaugh, begins in a similar vein:
Like many cases in this Court, this case boils down to one fundamental question: Who decides?
Kavanaugh concludes that it should not be the Court's decision, but does expound on why the Court's interpretation regarding "sex" is incorrect.
Congress could, of course, amend Title VII to exclude LGBTQ identities. But the momentum in Congress has tilted in the direction of inclusion, a step which would now be redundant.
As for the connections between Title VII and the Equal Protection Clause and the definitions of "sex" and protection for LGBTQ individuals, these arise in the dissenting opinions. Alito's dissent worries that the Title VII interpretation will "exert a gravitational pull in constitutional cases," so that LGBTQ identities will be afforded the heightened scrutiny standard applicable to sex/gender. For his part, Kavanaugh's dissent stresses that in the Court's discussions of sexual orientation in equal protection doctrine, the Court did not consider sexual orientation part of sex discrimination.
Additionally, all of the opinions raise the First Amendment free exercise of religion specter. The Court's majority states that "worries about how Title VII may intersect with religious liberties are nothing new; they even predate the statute’s passage," but that issue is for another day:
So while other employers in other cases may raise free exercise arguments that merit careful consideration, none of the employers before us today represent in this Court that compliance with Title VII will infringe their own religious liberties in any way.
For Alito dissenting, his views are similar to his views in the same-sex marriage cases. He states here that the " position that the Court now adopts will threaten freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and personal privacy and safety. No one should think that the Court’s decision represents an unalloyed victory for individual liberty."
Saturday, May 30, 2020
A closely divided Court in South Bay United Pentacostal Church v. Newsom denied the application for emergency injunction relief sought by the church from California Governor Newsom's Executive Order placing numerical restrictions on all gatherings to combat the spread of the highly infectious corona virus causing COVID-19. The Ninth Circuit panel and the district judge had similarly denied the church's motion for a preliminary injunction.
There is no opinion from the Court. Chief Justice Roberts, who joined the majority in rejecting the emergency application, filed a brief concurring opinion. On the merits, Chief Justice Roberts wrote:
Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time. And the Order exempts or treats more leniently only dissimilar activities, such as operating grocery stores, banks, and laundromats, in which people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods.
The precise question of when restrictions on particular social activities should be lifted during the pandemic is a dynamic and fact-intensive matter subject to reasonable disagreement. Our Constitution principally entrusts “[t]he safety and the health of the people” to the politically accountable officials of the States “to guard and protect.” Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U. S. 11, 38 (1905). When those officials “undertake[ ] to act in areas fraught with medical and scientific uncertainties,” their latitude “must be especially broad.” Marshall v. United States, 414 U. S. 417, 427 (1974). Where those broad limits are not exceeded, they should not be subject to second-guessing by an “unelected federal judiciary,” which lacks the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health and is not accountable to the people. See Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority, 469 U. S. 528, 545 (1985).
That is especially true where, as here, a party seeks emergency relief in an interlocutory posture, while local officials are actively shaping their response to changing facts on the ground. The notion that it is “indisputably clear” that the Government’s limitations are unconstitutional seems quite improbable.
In short, religious gatherings were not being treated any differently under the California Order and the judiciary should defer to the politically accountable entities in health situations, especially when these are uncertain and changing.
Justice Bret Kavanaugh wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch — but interestingly not Justice Alito — concluding that the California Order did not treat the religious institutions the same as "comparable secular businesses" such as grocery stores. Kavanaugh argues that given this differential treatment, struct scrutiny should apply, and California has not advanced a sufficiently compelling reason to treat religious gatherings differently.
As the pandemic continues, there is certainly sure to be more litigation, but for a majority of the Court, gatherings including those that are religious can be limited in service to public health.
May 30, 2020 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Medical Decisions, Opinion Analysis, Religion, Science, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, May 11, 2020
The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments (telephonically) in the consolidated cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrisey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel.
Recall that these cases involve an application of the First Amendment's "ministerial exception" first accepted by the Court in 2012 in Hosana-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC. In the unanimous decision in Hosanna-Tabor, the Court found that the school teacher Cheryl Perich was tantamount to a minister. Thus, under both Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, as a "minister" her employment relations with her church school employer were eligible for a "ministerial exception" to the otherwise applicable employment laws, in that case the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But how far such this extend and who should qualify as a "ministerial" employee subject to the exemption from employment laws? The factors that courts have derived from Hosana-Tabor include:
- (1) whether the employer held the employee out as a minister by bestowing a formal religious title;
- (2) whether the employee’s title reflected ministerial substance and training;
- (3) whether the employee held herself out as a minister; and
- (4) whether the employee’s job duties included “important religious functions.”
Throughout the oral argument, the question was which of these factors should be the test. Morgan Ratner, on behalf of the United States as amicus curiae argued that the sole factor of the employee performing an "important religious function" should be the test. And yet, the very determination of whether an employee was performing "important religious functions" implicates an Establishment Clause issue should the court make such determinations. Indeed, Justice Gorsuch pressed on whether the court should simply accept the religious organization's statement that it had a sincere religious belief.
Nevertheless, the United States argued that this "important religious functions" factor should govern, even if the employee was not terminated for a religious reason, but — as is the allegation in these cases — for a health issue or for age discrimination. Both Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor repeated the broadness of the exemption sought. And further, the fact that the teacher need not share religious identity with the organization should not be relevant to a determination of "important religious functions":
KAGAN: [A]nd if a position can be filled by any old person, not by a member of a faith, isn't that a pretty good sign that the employee doesn't have that special role within the religious community?
MS. RATNER: No, Justice Kagan, I don't think so. And -- and there are really several reasons. The -- the most important one is that's essentially a religious judgment about who is qualified to perform certain important religious functions and how much of the creed of that religion you need to share to perform that function.
Arguing for the teachers who had been terminated, Jeffrey Fisher pointed out the number of teachers employed in religious schools, and the number of other employees in religious hospitals. Fisher argued the expansiveness of the religious organization's argument:
So it really is a sea change – even as to teachers, leaving everything else aside, it is truly a sea change that is being requested by the other side here today in terms of how teachers and schools are classified and whether they have any employment rights at all or -- or, in fact, whether at least if you follow the way the lower courts have -- have implemented the ministerial exception, you basically have employment law-free zones in all religious schools.
Fisher also contended that many other laws were at stake, not only discrimination laws, but wage and hour and equal pay acts, as well as teacher credentialing laws including specific provisions such as criminal background checks.
Thus, while the ministerial exemption as rooted in the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment originally excepted only "ministers," there is a chance that it will be broadened to include all - - - or almost all - - - employees at religious organizations.
Tuesday, May 5, 2020
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Wednesday in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants, Inc., the case testing whether the general ban on automated calls to cell phones in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act is an impermissible content-based restriction on speech because the Act exempts calls to collect government owned debt. Here's my Preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
Congress enacted the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA) in order to protect individuals from the “nuisance” and “invasion of privacy” wrought by automated calls. Among other things, the TCPA prohibits any automated call to any cell phone number, except calls made for an emergency purpose or with the express consent of the called party. 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(A)(iii). While Congress was particularly concerned about automated telemarketing calls, the automated-call restriction is not limited to calls made to sell goods or services. Congress delegated authority to enforce the TCPA to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
In 2015, Congress added an exception to the automated-call restriction for calls “made solely to collect a debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States.” 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(A)(iii). The provision, called the “government-debt exception,” was designed to help the United States collect on debts “as quickly and efficiently as possible.” As part of the provision, Congress authorized the FCC to issue regulations “restrict[ing] or limit[ing] the number and duration of” these calls, so that the FCC could “protect consumers from being harassed and contacted unreasonably.” FCC regulations limit the government-debt exception to only those calls involving delinquent debt that the United States owns or guarantees, and where a caller has authority to accept payment and the recipient has a responsibility to pay.
In 2016, a group of political organizations and an association of political consultants, fundraisers, and pollsters sued the Attorney General and the FCC, arguing that the automated-call restriction, as amended by the government-debt exception, was a content-based restriction on speech in violation of the First Amendment. The plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment that the automated-call restriction was unconstitutional on its face.
The district court ruled in favor of the government. The Fourth Circuit vacated the judgment and remanded for further proceedings. (The Fourth Circuit ruled that the government-debt exception was an impermissible content-based regulation on speech. But it then severed that exception from the broader automated-call restriction, and sent the case back to the district court to determine whether the automated-call restriction, now without the government-debt exception, violated free speech.) This appeal followed.
As a general matter, a content-based restriction on speech must be narrowly tailored, or necessary, to serve a compelling government interest. This test, called “strict scrutiny,” is the most demanding test known to constitutional law. It usually means that a content-based restriction on speech violates the First Amendment.
This case has a twist, though. The content-based portion of the automated-call restriction is in the government-debt exception (assuming, that is, that the government-debt exception is content-based—the first point of contention between the parties). The plaintiffs don’t challenge the government-debt exception alone (and that makes sense, because, after all, the exception allows speech); instead, they challenge the overall automated-call restriction based on the alleged impermissibly content-based government-debt exception.
And that leads to severability—the second point of contention between the parties. If the government-debt exception is a content-based regulation on speech, and if it therefore renders the entire automated-call restriction a content-based regulation on speech, then the Court may be able to save the automated-call restriction by simply extracting, or severing, the government-debt restriction—that is, by simply removing the offending portion.
The government argues that the government-debt exception is not a content-based restriction on speech. The government claims that the exception does not regulate speech based on its content, but rather based on “a certain kind of economic activity (the collection of government-backed debts).” To illustrate this point, the government says that the exception doesn’t apply unless the government owns or guarantees the debt, the caller has authority to collect the debt, and the debt is not delinquent—all requirements that do not relate to the content or message of the call. And to the extent that these requirements may touch on the content of the call, the government contends that these are not the kinds of things that typically trigger strict scrutiny.
Because the government-debt exception is not a content-based regulation of speech, the government argues that it is subject to a lower level of scrutiny, intermediate scrutiny, and that it passes. The government claims that the exception serves the “significant public and governmental interest in protecting the federal fisc,” and that the exception “directly advances” that interest by allowing automated calls to more efficiently collect on government debt. It says that the exception allows only a narrow range of calls for a limited purpose, and therefore sufficiently protects the privacy interests of those who are called.
Finally, the government argues that even if the government-debt exception is a content-based regulation of speech, the Court should sever it from the rest of the TCPA and leave the automated-call restriction intact. The government claims that the Act itself contains a severability provision that unambiguously requires severability, and that the history and purposes of the TCPA confirm “that Congress would have wanted the automated-call restriction to remain in effect independently of the government-debt exception.” (The government points to the fact that the automated-call restriction was on the books for 24 years before Congress added the government-debt exception.) The government contends that when the Court severs the government-debt exception, it removes the content-based regulation on speech (again, only assuming that the government-debt exception is a content-based regulation on speech) so that it can’t infect the rest of the Act—and so that the automated-call restriction can continue to stand.
The plaintiffs counter that the automated-call restriction is an impermissible content-based restriction on speech. The plaintiffs point to the government-debt exception to illustrate this. In short, they say that the automated-call restriction, including its government-debt exception, allows speech that “discusses only the collection of government-backed debt” but disallows speech on any other topic. The plaintiffs contend that fails strict scrutiny, because the government doesn’t have a compelling interest in protecting the public from unwanted communication, and, in any event, the “sweeping prohibitions” under the automated-call restriction “are far from the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.” (Indeed, they argue that “the statute is so hopelessly ill-tailored to the Government’s asserted privacy interest that [the automated-call restriction] fails any level of scrutiny.”)
The plaintiffs argue that the only appropriate remedy is to strike the automated-call restriction. They claim that Court precedent supports the idea that when a statute restricts speech based on content with exceptions that allow speech, the Court strikes the restriction, not the exceptions. Moreover, they claim that it’s the automated-call restriction, and not the government-debt exception, that harms them. The plaintiffs contend that the content-based discrimination reflected in the government-debt exception shows that the overall automated-call restriction is also content-based, and therefore unconstitutional. They assert that severing the government-debt exception (the provision that allows more speech) only to uphold the automated-call restriction (the provision that allows less speech) makes no sense when the First Amendment protects free (or more) speech.
Finally, the plaintiffs argue that the automated-call restriction violates free speech even if the Court severs the government-debt exception. They claim that the automated-call restriction is itself a content-based restriction on speech (even without considering the government-debt exception), and that it is “far broader than necessary to advance the narrow privacy interests the Government asserts.”
This ruling could have immediate and all-too-palpable significance for the estimated 96 percent of people in the United States who have a cell phone. Perhaps to state the obvious: a ruling for the plaintiffs could allow automated political calls to cell phones, right as the 2020 election goes into full swing. This could be a huge boon to those who seek to use automated-calling technology for political purposes (like the plaintiffs in this very case), but it could also be a huge drag to cell phone users who wish to avoid an onslaught of political calls on a device that was previously protected from them.
A ruling for the plaintiffs would effectively open up calls for other purposes, too, including commercial solicitations, advertisements, surveys, and the like.
But this is only if the Court rules (1) that the government-debt exception is a content-based restriction on speech, (2) that the government cannot justify the exception under strict scrutiny, and (3) that the government-debt exception therefore renders the entire automated-call restriction irremediably unconstitutional (because the government-debt exception cannot be severed). This is a tall order, even for a Court that has in recent years demonstrated an extreme preference for a free and open “marketplace of ideas”—and an equally extreme distaste for all manner of content-based regulations on speech.
Taking a step back from the particulars of First Amendment doctrine, here’s another way to think about this case: as a balance between, on the one hand, a free and open marketplace of ideas, involving our most highly valued speech (political speech), and, on the other, our need for and expectation of privacy from automated calls on our cell phones. At what point does the marketplace of ideas run into our expectation of privacy, on this especially private device?
Monday, May 4, 2020
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in USAID v. Alliance for Open Society International, the case testing whether the First Amendment bars Congress from restricting federal funds to fight HIV and AIDS abroad to foreign affiliates of U.S. nongovernmental organizations that have a policy opposing prostitution and sex trafficking. Here's my preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
In 2003, in order to fight the global HIV and AIDS pandemic, Congress enacted the United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act. Under the Act, Congress has provided billions of dollars to fight HIV and AIDS abroad through increased treatment, efforts to prevent new infections and initiatives to “support the care for those affected by the disease.”
As part of its detailed factual findings in support of the Act, Congress determined that women were particularly vulnerable to HIV and AIDS. As relevant here, Congress identified “[p]rostitution and other sexual victimization,” including sex trafficking, as significant harms to women and children. The Act accordingly states that it “should be the policy of the United States to eradicate” the practices of “[p]rostitution and other sexual victimization.”
As part of its findings, Congress also determined that “[n]ongovernmental organizations . . . have proven effective in combating the HIV/AIDS pandemic” and are “critical to the success of . . . efforts to combat HIV/AIDS.” The Act accordingly “enlist[s] the assistance of nongovernmental organizations to help achieve the many goals of the program.”
But the Act establishes two conditions on its funds. First, the Act prohibits funds to “be used to promote or advocate the legalization or practice or prostitution or sex trafficking.” Second, at issue here, the Act specifies that no funds “may be used to provide assistance to any group or organization that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking,” with certain exceptions not relevant here. The parties refer to this second condition as the “Policy Requirement.” In order to enforce the “Policy Requirement,” the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service and the U.S. Agency for International Development directed that the recipient of any funding under the Act certify in the funding contract that it is opposed to “prostitution and sex trafficking because of the psychological and physical risks they pose for women, men, and children.”
In 2005, the Alliance for Open Society International and Pathfinder International, domestic NGOs that work to combat HIV and AIDS overseas, sued the government, arguing that the Policy Requirement violated their First Amendment rights. (The plaintiffs did not, and do not, support prostitution or sex trafficking, but they worried that complying with the Policy Requirement “may alienate certain host governments, and may diminish the effectiveness of some of their programs by making it more difficult to work with prostitutes in the fight against HIV/AIDS.”) As the case worked its way through the courts, the government adopted “Affiliate Guidelines” to try to accommodate the plaintiffs’ concerns. These Guidelines allowed domestic NGOs (like the plaintiffs) to “maintain an affiliation with separate organizations that do not have such a policy,” so long as those organizations met certain conditions. The Guidelines thus allowed domestic NGOs to abide by the Policy Requirement while working with foreign affiliates that could express their own views on prostitution. The plaintiffs argued that the Policy Requirement still violated their First Amendment rights, even with the Guidelines, in large part because the Guidelines required such a degree of separation between the plaintiffs and their affiliates that the affiliates’ speech could not stand-in for the plaintiffs’ own message.
The Supreme Court agreed. The Court first noted that as a general matter the government may place conditions on the receipt of federal funds, even when a condition may affect a recipient’s exercise of First Amendment rights. The Court said that these conditions merely “define the limits of the government spending program” by “specify[ing] the activities that Congress wants to subsidize.” But here, the Court held that the Policy Requirement sought “to leverage funding to regulate speech outside the contours of the program itself.” In other words, the Policy Requirement regulated more speech than necessary to define the program. As to the Affiliate Guidelines, the Court wrote,
When we have noted the importance of affiliates in this context, it has been because they allow an organization bound by a funding condition to exercise its First Amendment rights outside the scope of the federal program. Affiliates cannot serve that purpose when the condition is that a funding recipient espouse a specific belief as its own. If the affiliate is distinct from the recipient, the arrangement does not afford a means for the recipient to express its beliefs. If the affiliate is more clearly identified with the recipient, the recipient can express those beliefs only at the price of evident hypocrisy. The guidelines themselves make that clear.
As a result, the Court ruled that the Policy Requirement violated the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights and affirmed a preliminary injunction halting its enforcement against them. Alliance I, 570 U.S. 205 (2013).
After the Court ruled in Alliance I, in September 2014, HHS and USAID issued funding notices that explicitly exempted all domestic NGOs from the Policy Requirement but continued to apply the Requirement to foreign NGOs, including the plaintiffs’ affiliates. The plaintiffs sued again, arguing (for the first time) that the Policy Requirement’s application to their foreign affiliates violated their own First Amendment rights. In short, the plaintiffs said that their close affiliation with foreign NGOs meant that those NGOs’ certification under the Requirement could be imputed to them.
The district court agreed. The court applied the Court’s ruling in Alliance I and issued a permanent injunction, halting the government’s application of the Policy Requirement to the plaintiffs’ foreign NGO affiliates. (During the district court proceedings, the parties attempted to agree upon a definition of “affiliate” that would resolve the plaintiffs’ complaint. They apparently failed.) The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed. This appeal followed.
The government argues that it can apply the Policy Requirement to foreign entities operating abroad under basic constitutional principles. It first points out that as a general matter the government can set limits on the use and distribution of federal funds, and that recipients who object to those limits can simply decline the funds. It next notes that this general principle sometimes gives the government the ability to put unconstitutional conditions, including violations of the First Amendment, on the receipt of federal funds. But the government argues that the unconstitutional conditions doctrine only applies to recipients that actually have constitutional rights. It contends that foreign entities operating abroad have no such rights. Therefore, it contends that its denial of funds based on a foreign entity’s failure to comply with the Policy Requirement cannot violate that foreign entity’s First Amendment rights.
The government argues that the Third Circuit got it wrong when it held that the First Amendment bars enforcement of the Policy Requirement against the plaintiffs’ foreign affiliates, because such enforcement violates the plaintiffs’ own free speech rights. The government contends that “[n]o legal principle supports that proposition.” It claims that the plaintiffs themselves acknowledged that they are legally distinct from their foreign affiliates, and that basic tenets of corporate law reinforce that conclusion. The government says that the Court cannot treat the plaintiffs and their affiliates as a single entity, because, again, corporate law does not permit legally distinct entities to be treated as one, even if, as here, they share similar names, logos, and brands. The government asserts that the Court “has repeatedly enforced corporate separation even when presented with closer affiliations.”
The government argues that nothing in Alliance I suggests the contrary. The government claims that the Court in that case said nothing about whether the government could require foreign affiliates to adopt the Policy Requirement, and that it only considered affiliated organizations (in the passage quoted above) in order to show that their own speech could not alleviate any First Amendment problem with applying the Policy Requirement to the plaintiffs. The government says that this analysis has no bearing on this case, because the government now does not apply the Policy Requirement to domestic NGOs (and so there is no need to analyze whether their foreign affiliates might speak for them).
Finally, the government argues that there is no other basis to invalidate the application of the Policy Requirement to domestic NGOs. It says that such an application does not undermine the goals of the Leadership Act (as the plaintiffs contend), because, after all, Congress itself wrote the Policy Requirement into the Act. In any event, the government claims that efforts to eradicate prostitution and sex trafficking are perfectly consistent with a fight against HIV and AIDS, and that it has applied the Policy Requirement to foreign entities since the Leadership Act was enacted, without hindering that fight.
The plaintiffs counter that the government’s application of the Policy Requirement to their foreign affiliates infects their own speech in violation of the First Amendment. The plaintiffs say that the Policy Requirement, unlike a restriction on speech, necessarily taints all “clearly identified” affiliates, no matter where they operate, including the domestic plaintiffs themselves. They contend that the Court recognized this in Alliance I (again, in the passage quoted above), and that the government’s enforcement of the Policy Requirement to their foreign affiliates overseas therefore necessarily infringes on their own First Amendment rights.
The plaintiffs argue that this analysis is consistent with the more general constitutional prohibition on government forcing citizens to express views that they find objectionable. The plaintiffs contend that compelled speech (in contrast to restricted speech) “imprint[s] the speaker itself with the government’s view and depriv[es] the speaker and those to whom its speech is attributed of control over their message.” They say that the courts can’t remedy compelled speech by simply opening alternative channels for speech (as they can with restricted speech). Instead, the plaintiffs claim that the courts “must ensure that the government’s viewpoint is no longer forcibly imputed to the speaker.”
The plaintiffs argue that the record supports their points. They contend that they and their foreign affiliates are “unified organizations,” with “the same name, brand, and logo,” and that they “speak as one.” The plaintiffs say that the government’s own affiliate regulations make this clear: under those regulations, affiliates “must maintain objective independence from any entity that does not adhere to the recipient’s anti-prostitution pledge.” The plaintiffs claim that without an injunction against the enforcement of the Policy Requirement to their foreign affiliates, they have to “conform [their] own speech and conduct to [their] affiliate’s pledge to keep from jeopardizing not only their shared identity and reputation as a global public-health organization but also their federal funding.” The plaintiffs contend that formal legal separation with their affiliates does not change any of this: “[a]n organization-wide affirmation of belief will necessarily be attributed to any clearly identified components of the organization, regardless of their corporate structure.”
Finally, the plaintiffs assert that the government’s other arguments have no merit. They say that nothing in the record supports the government’s claim that upholding the injunction would undermine the Leadership Act or foreign aid more generally. They also say that nothing in the record supports the government’s “specter of sham affiliations,” especially given that the plaintiffs are “well-known, steadfast partners that for nearly two decades have worked with the government to save millions of lives.”
For the plaintiffs, the Policy Requirement, however the government enforces it, has always been a significant impediment to their hard-won relationships and credibility, and therefore to their tireless and sustained efforts, in their fight again HIV and AIDS around the world. That’s no small thing: the plaintiffs are major players in this global fight and, as they say, have been working with the government “for nearly two decades . . . to save millions of lives.” Moreover, for the plaintiffs and the communities they serve, the plaintiffs are one with their foreign affiliates. They not only share the same name, brand, and logo; they also share the same approach and messaging. For the plaintiffs, their legal distinction from their foreign affiliates is a mere formality, driven by the international, or multi-national, nature of their work, and the government’s enforcement of the Policy Requirement against their foreign affiliates is simply an attempt to sidestep the principles in Alliance I.
On the other side, for the government this case is about enforcing the Policy Requirement—and thus cracking down on prostitution and sex trafficking in the fight against HIV and AIDS—in whatever ways remain available after Alliance I. For the government, this objective is an essential part of the fight against HIV and AIDS under the Leadership Act, and enforcing the Policy Requirement against foreign entities is simply its way of fully enforcing the Act.
In short, this case is much more than a mere postscript to Alliance I. Indeed, for both sides, this case amounts to an entirely new challenge to, or defense of, the Policy Requirement. And the Court’s ruling will be every bit as important as its earlier ruling in Alliance I.
Tuesday, February 25, 2020
SCOTUS Hears Oral Arguments in First Amendment Challenge to Crime of Encouraging or Inducing Immigration Violation
The Court heard oral argument in United States v. Sineneng-Smith involving the constitutionality of 8 U.S.C.§ 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv). The statute makes it a crime for any person who
encourages or induces an alien to come to, enter, or reside in the United States, knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that such coming to, entry, or residence is or will be in violation of law.
The Ninth Circuit held that this subsection "criminalizes a substantial amount of protected expression in relation to the statute’s narrow legitimate sweep; thus, we hold that it is unconstitutionally overbroad in violation of the First Amendment."
The oral argument before the Supreme Court on certiorari was a criss-crossing of the lines between conduct and speech, between criminal law and the First Amendment, and between constitutional avoidance and judicial ability to redraft a statute. The Deputy Solicitor General argued that the statutory provision was not aimed at speech and did not encompass "substantial amounts of it," and if it did, courts could remedy those situations with as-applied challenges rather than the "last resort remedy of overbreadth invalidation." Arguing for the Respondent, who had been convicted of two counts of the crime, Mark Fleming contended that the words of the statute — "encourages or induces" — are much broader than usual criminal words such as "solicitation" or "aiding and abetting." Fleming emphasized that the "even accurate advice" encouraging someone to stay in the United States is criminalized, including a teacher who says to an undocumented student that she should stay and pursue her education.
The argument returned several times to an amicus brief filed by Professor Eugene Volokh in support of neither party. Volokh contended that the Court should recognize that the line between protected abstract advocacy and unprotected solicitation must turn on specificity, and that
because the premise of the solicitation exception is that solicitation is conduct integral to the commission of a crime, only solicitation of criminal conduct can be made criminal consistently with the First Amendment. Solicitation of merely civilly punishable conduct cannot be made criminal, though it can be punished civilly.
(emphasis in original). It was this issue — that the undocumented person could be merely civilly liable while the person who "encourages or induces" the action of staying would be criminally prosecuted — that seemed to cause some consternation amongst the Justices. Justice Alito raised the encouraging suicide hypothetical:
There's a teenager who's -- who has been very seriously bullied and is very depressed and is thinking of committing suicide. The teenager has a gun in his hand. He calls up the one person he thinks is his friend and he says, I'm thinking of killing myself. And the person on the other end of the line says, you've said this before, I'm tired of hearing this from you, you never follow through, you're a coward, why don't you just do it, I encourage you to pull the trigger.
Now is that protected by the First Amendment? Is that speech protected by the First Amendment? Attempting to commit suicide is not a crime.
Nevertheless, whether or not the statute would be used that way, or to prosecute people based only on their speech, Fleming pointed to United States v. Stevens, involving the "crush-porn" statute which the Court found unconstitutional, noting that the "first Amendment does not require us to rely on the grace of the executive branch." Interestingly, after Stevens, Congress did pass a more narrow statute which has been upheld. That experience would surely be on some of the Justices' minds as they consider Chief Justice Roberts's comments about whether the extent to which the statute might be rewritten would need to be "passed by the Senate and House" and "signed by the President," garnering laughter in the courtroom.
Yet Fleming also noted that the government has recently made a "focus" of the enforcement of immigration laws and should the Court uphold the statute, more robust enforcement would likely follow. Given the current controversies around immigration, that would surely also be on the minds of the Justices.
Monday, February 24, 2020
The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia.
Recall that a unanimous panel of the Third Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of a preliminary injunction against Philadelphia for stopping its referral of foster children to organizations that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in their certification of foster parents. Much of the litigation centers on Catholic Social Services (CSS) which will not certify same-sex couples, even those who are legally married to each other, as foster parents. Writing for the panel, Judge Thomas Ambro wrote that the Free Exercise Clause does not relieve one from compliance with a neutral law of general applicability, which the court found the nondiscrimination law to be. Unlike Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah (1993), there was no hostility towards religion evinced in the case. As the court stated:
CSS’s theme devolves to this: the City is targeting CSS because it discriminates against same-sex couples; CSS is discriminating against same-sex couples because of its religious beliefs; therefore the City is targeting CSS for its religious beliefs. But this syllogism is as flawed as it is dangerous. It runs directly counter to the premise of [Employment Division v. ] Smith  that, while religious belief is always protected, religiously motivated conduct enjoys no special protections or exemption from general, neutrally applied legal requirements. That CSS’s conduct springs from sincerely held and strongly felt religious beliefs does not imply that the City’s desire to regulate that conduct springs from antipathy to those beliefs. If all comment on religiously motivated conduct by those enforcing neutral, generally applicable laws against discrimination is construed as ill will against the religious belief itself, then Smith is a dead letter, and the nation’s civil rights laws might be as well. As the Intervenors rightly state, the “fact that CSS’s non- compliance with the City’s non-discrimination requirements is based on its religious beliefs does not mean that the City’s enforcement of its requirements constitutes anti-religious hostility.”
The litigation attracted much attention and the grant of certiorari may indicate that some of the Justices are willing to overturn Smith or to extend the holding of Masterpiece Cakeshop.
Thursday, January 23, 2020
The Court heard oral arguments in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue regarding a state tax credit scheme for student scholarships as violating the First Amendment's religion clauses and the equal protection clause.
Under the original Tax Credit Program, the law provided a taxpayer a dollar-for-dollar tax credit based on the taxpayer’s donation to a Student Scholarship Organization. However, Montana has a constitutional provision, Art. X §6, which prohibits aid to sectarian schools, so the department of revenue added "Rule 1" to the state tax credit scheme excluding from the definition of "qualified education provider" eligible under the scheme "a church, school, academy, seminary, college, university, literary or scientific institution, or any other sectarian institution owned or controlled in whole or in part by any church, religious sect, or denomination." Parents challenged the constitutionality of Rule 1, but when the litigation reached the Montana Supreme Court, it held that the Tax Credit Program was unconstitutional under Art. X §6 and therefore it did not need to reach the issue regarding Rule 1:
Having concluded the Tax Credit Program violates Article X, Section 6, it is not necessary to consider federal precedent interpreting the First Amendment’s less-restrictive Establishment Clause. Conversely, however, an overly-broad analysis of Article X, Section 6, could implicate free exercise concerns. Although there may be a case where an indirect payment constitutes “aid” under Article X, Section 6, but where prohibiting the aid would violate the Free Exercise Clause, this is not one of those cases. We recognize we can only close the “room for play” between the joints of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses to a certain extent before our interpretation of one violates the other.
In the oral argument, Justice Ginsberg characterized the option exercised by the Montana Supreme Court as leveling down: "When a differential is challenged, the court inspecting the state law can level up or level down. And here it leveled down." (This "leveling down" approach occurred in Justice Ginsburg's opinion for the Court in Sessions v. Santana-Morales (2017)). And here that leveling down effected questions of standing which troubled Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan in their early questions to the attorney for the petitioners — the parents and original plaintiffs — who are "three levels removed" from any injury as Sotmayor stated.
The Montana Supreme Court assumed center stage at times, with Justice Alito for example questioning not simply whether the court was wrong but whether it was discriminatory:
isn't the crucial question why the state court did what it did?
If it did what it did for an unconstitutionally discriminatory reason, then there's a problem under Village of Arlington Heights.
So I'll give you an example. The state legislature sets up a scholarship fund, and after a while, people look at the – the recipients of the scholarships, and some people say: Wow, these are mostly going to blacks and we don't like that and that's contrary to state law. So the state supreme court says: Okay,that discrimination is -- we're going to strike down the whole thing.
Is that constitutional?
The attorney for Montana, Adam Unikowsky rejected "the race analogy" stating that "we just don't think that race and religion are identical for all constitutional reasons."
Justice Breyer explained, "what he's saying is that, look, the court took the case in the Prince Edward County thing -- " or "the equivalent and said they couldn't do that. They can't shut down all the schools, even though the Constitution they didn't say had a right and so that's the similarity."
This question of the race-religion analogy persisted, with the motivation behind the Montana state constitutional provision, often known as a Blaine Amendment, being "rooted in -- in grotesque religious bigotry against Catholics," as Justice Kavanaugh phrased it. Justice Kagan seemingly rejected the notion that the court's striking down the entire program must be motivated by animus towards religion:
And I can think of many reasons why you would strike down the whole program that have nothing to do with animus toward religion. You might actually think that funding religion imposes costs and burdens on religious institutions themselves. You might think that taxpayers have conscientious objections to funding religion. You might think that funding religion creates divisiveness and conflict within a society, and that for all those reasons, funding religious activity is not a good idea and that you would rather level down and fund no comparable activity, whether religious or otherwise, than fund both. Now, none of those things have anything to do with animus towards religion . . . .
Yet soon after, Chief Justice Roberts returned to the race analogy. Later, Justice Breyer would ask:
can we--can you or could I say this: Yes, race is different from religion. Why? There is no Establishment Clause in regard to race.
The specific doctrinal arguments revolve around the extension of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo. v. Comer, decided in 2017, involving Missouri's state constitutional Blaine Amendment and the denial of funds to a church school playground. And more deeply, the "play in the joints" notion from Locke v. Davey — which was itself divisive in Trinity Lutheran — is implicated. At stake is the possibility that Free Exercise Clause will now overwhelm any anti-Establishment concerns.
January 23, 2020 in Courts and Judging, Equal Protection, Establishment Clause, Federalism, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Fundamental Rights, Oral Argument Analysis, Race, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, January 20, 2020
The Ninth Circuit ruled on Friday that a media plaintiff had a First Amendment right to access nonconfidential civil complaints, and that one court policy violated that right, where another court policy didn't. The ruling sets a test and clarifies the law in the Ninth Circuit.
The case, Courthouse News Service v. Planet, arose when CNS challenged the process of releasing nonconfidential complaints to the press in Ventura County Superior Court. That process, dubbed "no access before process," meant that the court put newly filed civil complaints through a seven-step administrative process before releasing them to the media. That could take a couple days, so CNS sued, seeking immediate access. (Venture County doesn't use electronic filing; it's all paper.)
As the case worked its way through the federal courts, Ventura County changed its practice to a "scanning policy." Under the scanning policy, the court scanned complaints and made them available the same day (in most cases) on court computers. CNS still wanted immediate access, however, so the case moved on.
The Ninth Circuit said that CNS has a qualified First Amendment right of access to newly filed, nonconfidential civil complaints, and that the "no access before process" violated it, while the "scanning policy" didn't. The Ninth Circuit held that courts could adopt reasonable restrictions on access resembling time, place, and manner regulations. These could result in incidental delays in access, so long as they are content-neutral, narrowly tailored and necessary to serve the court's important interest in the fair and orderly administration of justice. Or: "Ventura County must demonstrate first that there is a 'substantial probability' that its interest in the fair and orderly administration of justice would be impaired by immediate access, and second, that no reasonable alternatives exist to 'adequately protect' that government interest."
As to the "no access before process" policy, the court said that it resulted in significant delays, but didn't serve (and in fact were entirely unrelated to) the stated interests in privacy and confidentiality, complying with accounting protocols, controlling quality and accuracy, promoting efficient court administration, or promoting the integrity of court records. It also said that the policy "caused far greater delays than were necessary to protect [these interests]."
As to the scanning policy, the court said that it directly related to the court's asserted interests and that, after the court changed its filing hours, the policy resulted in "near perfect" same-day access to the complaints. (Before the court changed its filing hours, there wasn't near perfect same-day access, but the Ninth Circuit gave the court a pass, because it faced resource constraints.)
The ruling leaves the current scanning policy in place.
Judge Smith concurred in part, arguing that the majority wrongly applied strict scrutiny, and instead should have applied "reasonable time, place and manner restrictions."
Friday, January 10, 2020
The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in Barr v. Political Consultants involving a First Amendment challenge to a provision of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (the “TCPA”), 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(A).
The federal law prohibits calls to cell phones by use of an automated dialing system or an artificial or prerecorded voice, subject to three statutory exemptions including one added in 2015 for automated calls that relate to the collection of debts owed to or guaranteed by the federal government.
The challengers, political consultants and similar entities, argued that this exemption violated the First Amendment as a content regulation that could not survive strict scrutiny and further that the exemption could not be severed from the TCPA.
The district judge held that the TCPA exemption was content-based but satisfied strict scrutiny review. The Fourth Circuit's opinion agreed that the exemption was content-based, applying the rubric from Reed v. Town of Gilbert (2015). Like the district judge, the panel rejected the government's contention that it was not content-based but only relationship-based. The panel stated:
Instead, the exemption regulates on the basis of the content of the phone call. Under the debt-collection exemption, the relationship between the federal government and the debtor is only relevant to the subject matter of the call. In other words, the debt-collection exemption applies to a phone call made to the debtor because the call is about the debt, not because of any relationship between the federal government and the debtor.
a private debt collector could make two nearly identical automated calls to the same cell phone using prohibited technology, with the sole distinction being that the first call relates to a loan guaranteed by the federal government, while the second call concerns a commercial loan with no government guarantee.
Unlike the district judge, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the exemption failed strict scrutiny:
It is fatally underinclusive for two related reasons. First, by authorizing many of the intrusive calls that the automated call ban was enacted to prohibit, the debt-collection exemption subverts the privacy protections underlying the ban. Second, the impact of the exemption deviates from the purpose of the automated call ban and, as such, it is an outlier among the other statutory exemptions.
However, the Fourth Circuit agreed with the government that the exemption was severable, citing NFIB v. Sebelius (2012), and reasoning that severing the debt-collection exemption will not undermine the automated call ban. given that for twenty-four years, from 1991 until 2015, until the exemption was added, the automated call ban was “fully operative.”
The United States Supreme Court has now added this case to its 2019-2020 Term.
Thursday, January 9, 2020
In a six page letter, the New York City Bar Association urged Congress to "commence formal inquiries into a pattern of conduct by Attorney General William P. Barr that threatens public confidence in the fair and impartial administration of justice."
The bar association letter discusses four specific instances of public comments that were inconsistent with the duties of the Attorney General
to act impartially, to avoid even the appearance of partiality and impropriety, and to avoid manifesting bias, prejudice, or partisanship in the exercise of official responsibilities are bedrock obligations for government lawyers. In the context of pending investigations, government lawyers also are obliged to be circumspect in their public statements and to avoid prejudging the outcomes of those investigations.
The letter also remarks that the specific "comments follow and are reminiscent of Mr. Barr’s earlier mischaracterizations of the Mueller Report, prior to his release of a redacted version of it, in which Mr. Barr claimed the special counsel had found insufficient evidence of any obstruction of justice by President Trump—a material mischaracterization of the Mueller Report and a proposition rejected by more than 1,000 former federal prosecutors based on the facts set forth in the Mueller Report."
In brief, the four instances are:
- On October 11, 2019, in an invitation-only speech at the University of Notre Dame, Mr. Barr launched a partisan attack against “so called ‘progressives’” for supposedly waging a “campaign to destroy the traditional moral order.”
- On November 15, 2019, in a speech at the Federalist Society’s National Lawyers Convention, Mr. Barr again vilified “progressives” and “the Left” (characterizing as “the other side” those who “oppose this President”) in highly partisan terms.
- On December 3, 2019, drawing from earlier remarks, Mr. Barr warned at a DOJ awards ceremony that “the American people have to . . . start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves,” and “if communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”
- On December 10, 2019, in a television interview soon after DOJ’s Inspector General released a report finding no improper political motivation in the FBI’s commencement of a counterintelligence investigation into alleged ties between the Trump-Pence campaign and Russian officials in 2016, Mr. Barr publicly rejected the Inspector General’s findings, asserting instead that a separate ongoing investigation into the FBI’s actions that he personally had directed would likely reach a different conclusion.
The letter asks for Congressional oversight of Attorney General Barr because, in short,
In a troubling number of instances, Mr. Barr has spoken and acted in a manner communicating an impression that he views himself as serving as the Attorney General not for the entire nation, but more narrowly for certain segments of society—whether defined in terms of religion, ideology (his own “side,” to borrow the language of Mr. Barr’s Federalist Society speech) or party affiliation.
Wednesday, January 1, 2020
For his 2019 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, Chief Justice Roberts chose to include in his brief introductory remarks some words about democracy:
It is sadly ironic that John Jay’s efforts to educate his fellow citizens about the Framers’ plan of government fell victim to a rock thrown by a rioter motivated by a rumor. Happily, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay ultimately succeeded in convincing the public of the virtues of the principles embodied in the Constitution. Those principles leave no place for mob violence. But in the ensuing years, we have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside. In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital. The judiciary has an important role to play in civic education, and I am pleased to report that the judges and staff of our federal courts are taking up the challenge.
[emphasis added]. The emphasized bolded language, seeming to blame the population of the United States for taking democracy for granted and social media for spreading rumors did not sit well with some commentators who argued that Roberts should consider his own contributions to undermining democracy: Shelby County (regarding voting rights); Rucho (decided in June of this year holding partisan gerrymandering is a political question not suitable for the federal courts); McCutcheon (finding campaign finance regulations unconstitutional). For others, Roberts's language regarding civic education is welcome and demonstrates his recognition of the divides in the nation.
Noticeably absent from Roberts's remarks was any reference to the impeachment trial which looms in the Senate over which he will preside. Also absent was any update on the sexual misconduct claims against members of the judiciary which he mentioned in last year's report.
Sunday, December 29, 2019
The Ninth Circuit ruled last week in Danielson v. Inslee that a public sector union is not liable for mandatory union dues paid before the Supreme Court struck mandatory union fees in Janus. The ruling follows a similar one in the Seventh Circuit.
Recall that the Supreme Court ruled in 2018 in Janus v. AFSCME that public sector unions could not collect mandatory fair-share fees (fees used for collective bargaining activities) consistent with the First Amendment. The ruling overturned the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which upheld mandatory fees against a First Amendment challenge.
After Janus, public sector unions stopped collecting the fees. But some public sector employees sued for pre-Janus fees paid. That's what happened in the Seventh Circuit, which led that court to hold that unions weren't on the hook for pre-Janus fees. And it's what happened in the Ninth Circuit, too.
The Ninth Circuit held that the union could invoke a good-faith defense against the plaintiffs' claims, relying on the pre-Janus state of the law to continue to collect mandatory fair-share fees. As to the strong hints from the Court even before 2018 that fair-share fees were on the chopping block, the Ninth Circuit said,
Although some justices had signaled their disagreement with Abood in the years leading up to Janus, Abood remained binding authority until it was overruled. We agree with our sister circuit that "[t]he Rule of Law requires that parties abide by, and be able to rely on, what the law is, rather than what the readers of tea-leaves predict that it might be in the future."
The Supreme Court has admonished the circuit courts not to presume the overruling of its precedents, irrespective of hints in its decisions that a shift may be on the horizon.
Monday, December 23, 2019
The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to two Ninth Circuit cases and consolidated them: Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrisey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel.
Both cases involve an application of the First Amendment's "ministerial exception" first accepted by the Court in 2012 in Hosana-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC. In the unanimous decision in Hosanna-Tabor, the Court found that the school teacher Cheryl Perich was tantamount to a minister. Thus, under both Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, as a "minister" her employment relations with her church school employer were eligible for a "ministerial exception" to the otherwise applicable employment laws, in that case the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But who is a "ministerial" employee subject to the exemption from employment laws?
Chief Justice Roberts' opinion for the Court in Hosanna-Tabor declined to provide a test for deciding whether or not an employee was within the ministerial exception. However, the Court did extensively analyze Cheryl Perich's employment. And the lower courts have been struggling with how to analogize to the Court's conclusions regarding the "called teacher" Perich.
In the unpublished and very brief panel opinion in Morrisey-Berru, the court stated that the Court in Hosanna-Tabor considered four factors in analyzing whether the exception applied:
- (1) whether the employer held the employee out as a minister by bestowing a formal religious title;
- (2) whether the employee’s title reflected ministerial substance and training;
- (3) whether the employee held herself out as a minister; and
- (4) whether the employee’s job duties included “important religious functions.”
Applying those factors, the Ninth Circuit panel stated:
Considering the totality of the circumstances in this case, we conclude that the district court erred in concluding that Morrissey-Berru was a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception. Unlike the employee in Hosanna-Tabor, Morrissey-Berru’s formal title of “Teacher” was secular. Aside from taking a single course on the history of the Catholic church, Morrissey-Berru did not have any religious credential, training, or ministerial background. Morrissey-Berru also did not hold herself out to the public as a religious leader or minister.
Morrissey-Berru did have significant religious responsibilities as a teacher at the School. She committed to incorporate Catholic values and teachings into her curriculum, as evidenced by several of the employment agreements she signed, led her students in daily prayer, was in charge of liturgy planning for a monthly Mass, and directed and produced a performance by her students during the School’s Easter celebration every year. However, an employee’s duties alone are not dispositive under Hosanna-Tabor’s framework. See Biel v. St. James Sch. (9th Cir. 2018). Therefore, on balance, we conclude that the ministerial exception does not bar Morrissey-Berru’s ADEA claim.
Biel, relied upon in Morrisey-Berru's unpublished opinion, was much more contentious. Reversing the district court, the Ninth Circuit panel's opinion in Biel similarly considered four factors from Hosanna-Tabor and applying them to the school teacher Kristen Biel concluded that she was not a ministerial employee. For the panel in Biel, she
by contrast, has none of Perich’s credentials, training, or ministerial background. There was no religious component to her liberal studies degree or teaching credential. St. James had no religious requirements for her position. And, even after she began working there, her training consisted of only a half-day conference whose religious substance was limited. Unlike Perich, who joined the Lutheran teaching ministry as a calling, Biel appears to have taken on teaching work wherever she could find it: tutoring companies, multiple public schools, another Catholic school, and even a Lutheran school.
Also in contrast to Perich, nothing in the record indicates that Biel considered herself a minister or presented herself as one to the community. She described herself as a teacher and claimed no benefits available only to ministers.
Only with respect to the fourth consideration in Hosanna-Tabor do Biel and Perich have anything in common: they both taught religion in the classroom. Biel taught lessons on the Catholic faith four days a week. She also incorporated religious themes and symbols into her overall classroom environment and curriculum, as the school required. We do not, however, read Hosanna-Tabor to indicate that the ministerial exception applies based on this shared characteristic alone. If it did, most of the analysis in Hosanna-Tabor would be irrelevant dicta, given that Perich’s role in teaching religion was only one of the four characteristics the Court relied upon in reaching the conclusion that she fell within the ministerial exception.
And even Biel’s role in teaching religion was not equivalent to Perich’s.. . .
The panel's opinion in Biel was not unanimous. A dissenting judge would have held that Biel was a minister in large part because her teaching duties at a Catholic school included religious teachings; the judge was "struck by the importance of her stewardship of the Catholic faith to the children in her class. Biel’s Grade 5 Teacher title may not have explicitly announced her role in ministry, but the substance reflected in her title demonstrates that she was a Catholic school educator with a distinctly religious purpose."
The petition for rehearing en banc was denied, but with a lengthy dissenting opinion by Judge R. Nelson joined by an addition eight Ninth Circuit Judges - - - that's nine Judges dissenting. Judge Nelson's opinion argues that the panel opinion in Biel (as well as the opinion in Morrisey-Berru) had taken the narrowest possible interpretation of Hosanna-Tabor, so narrow as to have "excised the ministerial exception, slicing through constitutional muscle and now cutting deep into core constitutional bone." For the dissenting judges,
In turning a blind eye to St. James’s religious liberties protected by both Religion Clauses, we exhibit the very hostility toward religion our Founders prohibited and the Supreme Court has repeatedly instructed us to avoid.
With the Court's grant of certiorari in Biel and Morrisey-Berru, perhaps there will be more clarity regarding the factors of Hosanna-Tabor and how they should be applied to teachers in private schools run by religious organizations.
The facts of Biel may strike many as particularly sympathetic: Kristen Biel was diagnosed with breast cancer and terminated when she said she would have to take some time off work when she underwent chemotherapy. St. James's principal, Sister Mary Margaret, told Biel it was not "fair" "to have two teachers for the children during the school year.” If she had worked for a nonreligious school, Biel would have been protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Court is set to decide whether Biel and seemingly almost every teacher at a private school operated by a religious organization should be excluded from the employment protections afforded other workers.
[image "Chalk Lessons, or the Black-board in the Sunday School. A Practical Guide for Superintendents and Teachers" by Frank Beard (1896), via]
Thursday, December 12, 2019
The D.C. Circuit this week rejected First Amendment challenges by the vaping industry to two key provisions of the Tobacco Control Act. The ruling affirms the FDA's authority to require premarket review of vaping products and to ban the distribution of free samples of vaping products.
The case tests two provisions of the TCA. The first provision requires FDA premarket review of all new tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. The Act has three pathways for premarket review, depending on the type of tobacco product. Products designed for recreational use (like traditional cigarettes) get the easiest path of review; products marketed as safer than existing tobacco products ("modified risk" products) get a mid-level path; and products marketed as smoking cessation products get the most demanding path for review. The second provision bans the distribution of free samples.
Plaintiffs, a vaping manufacturer and a vaping industry group, argued that the two provisions violated the First Amendment. In particular, they claimed that the FDA uses a manufacturer's own claims about its product to designate an appropriate premarket review pathway (the modified risk pathway in this case), in violation of free speech. They contend that the ban on free samples impermissibly restricts their free expression. The D.C. Circuit flatly rejected the claims.
As to the premarket review requirement, the court cited circuit precedent that "explicitly approves the use of a product's marketing and labeling to discern to which regulatory regime a product is subject, and to treat it as unlawful insofar as it is marketed under a different guise." But in any event, the court also held that the requirement met Central Hudson's commercial speech test: "[E]ven if we were to scrutinize the FDA's reliance on new tobacco product descriptors as a burden on the Industry's commercial speech, the modified risk product pathway clears First Amendment scrutiny because it is reasonably tailored to advance the substantial government interest in protecting the public health and preventing youth addiction."
As to the ban on free samples, the court explained that this provision regulates conduct, not speech, and that the conduct has no obvious expressive value. The court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that free samples are "the most effective and efficient means of obtaining product-specific information when trying to switch away from deadly cigarettes":
The Industry thus appears to be urging us to afford constitutional protection to the informational value of customers' experience trying out vaping, including the experience of sampling the available flavors and sensations.
This extraordinary argument, if accepted, would extent First Amendment protection to every commercial transaction on the ground that it "communicates" to the customer "information" about a product or service. Even if we could bridge the gap between the opportunity to use a product and the expression of an "idea," the Supreme Court has long rejected the "view that an apparently limitless variety of conduct can be labeled 'speech' whenever the person engaging in the conduct intends thereby to express an idea."
But even if the free-sample ban imposed an incidental burden on speech, the court held that "the restriction itself applies to conduct and is imposed 'for reasons unrelated to the communication of ideas.'"
Wednesday, December 11, 2019
In an opinion in Turtle Island Foods SPC d/b/a Tofurky Co. v. Soman, Judge Kristine Baker of the Eastern District of Arkansas considered a First Amendment challenge to >Arkansas Code §§ 2-1-305(2), (5), (6), (8), (9), and (10). The provisions prohibit misbranding or misrepresenting agricultural products; central to the issue was subsection 6 which prohibits
Representing the agricultural product as meat or a meat product when the agricultural product is not derived from harvested livestock, poultry, or cervids.
Judge Baker considered seven labels for products she referred to as “Veggie Burger,” “Deli Slices,” “Chorizo Style Sausage,” “Slow Roasted Chick’n,” “Original Sausage Kielbasa,” “Hot Dogs,” and “Vegetarian Ham Roast.” These products were not derived from "harvested livestock, poultry, or cervids" and were vegetarian.
After finding that Tofurky had standing and that abstention was not appropriate, Judge Baker analyzed the merits of the First Amendment claim. The parties agreed and the court found that the well-established four prong Central Hudson test, Central Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Public Service Comm’n of New York (1980), for commercial speech governed:
- (1) whether the commercial speech at issue concerns unlawful activity or is misleading;
- (2) whether the governmental interest is substantial;
- (3) whether the challenged regulation directly advances the government’s asserted interest; and
- (4) whether the regulation is no more extensive than necessary to further the government’s interest.
Arkansas argued that the first prong regarding misleading speech was not satisfied and thus the speech did not warrant First Amendment protection, but Judge Baker found that taken as a whole the labels were not misleading:
It is true, as the State contends, that these labels use some words traditionally associated with animal-based meat. However, the simple use of a word frequently used in relation to animal-based meats does not make use of that word in a different context inherently misleading. This understanding rings particularly true since the labels also make disclosures to inform consumers as to the plant-based nature of the products contained therein.
The “Veggie Burger” label has the word “veggie” modifying the word “burger” and includes the words “all vegan” in the middle of the package. Further, the “Veggie Burger” label features the words “white quinoa” next to a picture of the burger. The “Deli Slices” label also includes the words “all vegan” in the middle of the label, features the words “plant-based” next to a picture of the product, and describes the product as “smoked ham style.” (emphasis added). The “Chorizo Style Sausage” label includes the words “all vegan” and states that the product was “made with pasture raised plants.” The “Slow Roasted Chick’n” label has the words “all vegan” right next to the product’s name and describes the product as “plant-based” in the bottom left corner. The “Original Sausage Kielbasa” label includes the words “all vegan” next to the word “sausage” and identifies the product as “Polish-style wheat gluten and tofu sausages.” The “Hot Dogs” label has the words “all vegan” next to the word “dogs” and “plant-based” under the word “dogs.” The “Vegetarian Ham Roast” has the word “vegetarian” modifying the words “ham roast.” Each of these labels also feature the letter “V” in a circle on the front of the packaging, a common indicator that a food product is vegan or vegetarian. Finally, each of these labels feature the company name “Tofurky,” which clearly contains the word “tofu” in a play on the word “turkey.”
Applying the other prongs of Central Hudson, Judge Baker found that while the state had an interest in preventing misleading labels, the statute did not substantially further that interest (given that these labels were not misleading), and that a ban on these descriptions was more extensive than necessary.
Thus, Judge Baker issued a preliminary injunction, finding that the factors for a preliminary injunction had been met.