Friday, August 27, 2021
The Fifth Circuit dismissed a case challenging San Antonio's removal of a monument of a confederate soldier for lack of standing. The ruling ends the challenge. (The statue is already gone.)
The case, Albert Sidney Johnston v. San Antonio, arose when the city removed a confederate monument in a public park. ASJ sued, arguing that the removal violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
The court held that ASJ lacked standing. It recognized that ASJ is the successor organization to the Barnard E. Bee chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which erected the monument in the first place. But it said that ASJ had no property interest in the public park (because "the land was generally inaliable and unassignable") and no right to use the land; and therefore the organization couldn't allege a harm under the First or Fourteenth Amendments.
Saturday, August 21, 2021
The Tenth Circuit ruled that three part of the Kansas Farm Animal and Field Crop and Research Facilities Protection Act violated free speech. The ruling enjoins the government from enforcing those provisions.
The case, Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Kelly, tests three part of the Act, which, as a general matter criminalizes certain actions directed at an animal facility without effective consent of the owner of the facility and with intent to damage the enterprise of the facility. ALDF sued, arguing that the Act violated free speech, because ALDF investigators sometimes lie about their association with ALDF in order to get jobs at the facilities under cover, and would therefore violate the Act.
The Tenth Circuit agreed. The court examined three parts of the Act: subsection (b), which forbids acquiring or exercising control over an animal facility without effective consent of the owner and with intent to damage the enterprise; subsection (c), which forbids recording, attempting to record, or trespassing to record on an animal facility's property without effective consent of the owner and with intent to damage the enterprise; and subsection (d), which forbids trespassing on an animal facility without effective consent of the owner and with intent to damage the enterprise. The court ruled that these were viewpoint-based restrictions on speech (because they each require the "intent to damage the enterprise," as opposed, for example, to laud the enterprise), and subject to strict scrutiny. The court said that Kansas didn't even bother to try to justify the provisions under strict scrutiny, and therefore they failed.
Judge Hartz dissented, arguing, among other things, that property owners have a right to exclude that the majority's approach ignores; "that a fraudulently obtained consent to enter another's property, particular the type of entry desired by Plaintiffs, is not protected by the First Amendment"; and that the court should've excised any offending elements of the Act rather than ruling them unconstitutional.
The Ninth Circuit ruled this week that OAN failed to state a case for defamation against MSNBC host Rachel Maddow for stating that OAN "really literally is paid Russian propaganda." The ruling ends OAN's defamation suit.
The case, Herring Networks, Inc. v. Maddow, arose when Maddow ran a segment on OAN reporter Kristen Rouz, who, according to a story in the Daily Beast, also wrote stories for pay for Sputnik. At one point during the longer segment, Maddow said, "In this case, the most obsequiously pro-Trump right wing news outlet in America really literally is paid Russian propaganda." Herring then sued for defamation, and Maddow moved to strike the complaint under California's anti-SLAPP statute.
The Ninth Circuit ruled for Maddow. The court examined the broad context of the statement, the limited context of the statute, and the ability to determine the truth or falsity of the statement and concluded that it simply wasn't a statement of fact that could support a defamation claim:
In sum, two of the factors outlined in [circuit precedent]--the general context and the specific context of the contested statement--negate the impression that the statement is an assertion of objective fact. While the third factor [the ability to determine the truth or falsity of the statement] tilts in the other direction, we conclude that Maddow's contested statement fits within "the 'rhetorical hyperbole' [that] has traditionally added much to the discourse of our Nation."
The Fifth Circuit earlier this week rejected free-speech and free-association claims of a public employee, who was also a public-union leader, after he was terminated for performance reasons. The court also rejected the plaintiffs' class-of-one equal protection claim.
The case, United Steel v. Anderson, arose when Sergio Castilleja, a community service officer for the Bexar County Community Supervision and Corrections Department, was terminated for violating Department rules and other performance issues, including using Department equipment for union activities. But prior to his termination, Castilleja had been elected president of the Bexar County Probation Officers Association, and, in that role, oversaw a no-confidence petition against the Department chief, Jarvis Anderson. When he was fired, Castilleja's children and various unions sued, arguing that the Department terminated him for his union activities in violation of the First Amendment and that the Department treated him differently than officers in other unions in violation of equal protection.
The Fifth Circuit rejected the claims. The court ruled that the Department provided a legitimate, non-speech and non-association reason for his termination--his performance deficiencies--and that the plaintiffs failed to show that this reason was a pretext for reprisal for protected speech and association. The court also ruled that the unions' equal protection argument failed, because under Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture class-of-one equal protection claims (where one person alleges unequal treatment as compared to similarly situated persons) don't apply to discretionary public-employment decisions.
Friday, August 20, 2021
The Fifth Circuit ruled that a $5 per person fee for "latex clubs" in Texas violated free speech and due process. The ruling means that state authorities can't enforce the fee against sexually oriented clubs where dancers wear opaque latex breast coverings and shorts.
The case, Texas Entertainment Association v. Hegar, arose when Texas enacted a "sexually oriented business" fee that imposed a $5 charge per customer on businesses that serve alcohol in the presence of nude entertainment. In response, some sexually oriented businesses required dancers to wear opaque latex breast coverings and shorts. The gambit allowed these "latex clubs" to dodge the $5 fee for a good eight years, until the Texas comptroller issued a rule that excluded latex from the definition of "clothing" under the law. The rule meant that latex clubs now had to pay the fee.
The TEA, which represents sexually oriented businesses in Texas, sued, arguing that the comptroller's move violated free speech, due process, and equal protection. The Fifth Circuit agreed, except as to equal protection.
The court ruled that the comptroller's redefinition was a content-based restriction on speech (and not content-neutral), because the comptroller produced no evidence that the redefinition served any non-speech purpose (like reducing the secondary effects of latex clubs). (The court declined to shoehorn the state's initial asserted interest behind the $5 fee--reducing secondary effects--into the comptroller's decision, more than eight years later, and based on no evidence.) The court applied strict scrutiny, and ruled that the comptroller's action failed.
The court also ruled that the comptroller's action violated due process. The court said that the comptroller previously declined to impose the fee on latex clubs--indeed, that the comptroller told one club that "everything was good"--and upset the latex clubs' "settled expectation that they would not be subject to" the fee.
Finally, the court ruled that the action didn't violate equal protection. The court said that latex clubs were more like nude dancing establishments (which were already subject to the fee), and not like sports bars (which were not). Because the move did not treat similarly situated businesses differently (latex clubs aren't similar to sports bars), the court ruled that it didn't violate equal protection.
Thursday, August 19, 2021
The Sixth Circuit ruled that the University of Louisville did not violate procedural due process or free speech when it disciplined and later terminated a tenured professor and department chair for signing an unauthorized lease on behalf of the department and meeting with private equity firms interested in buying or financing the department.
Dr. Henry J. Kaplan, tenured prof and Chair of UofL's Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, sued the school after it fired him for signing the lease and meeting with potential investors. Kaplan argued that his termination violated due process, his reputation and career interests, and academic freedom. The court rejected each claim.
As to due process, the court ruled that Kaplan didn't have a property interest in his administrative position (chair of the department), so due process didn't apply. It ruled that the school's process for terminating his tenured professorship satisfied due process, because the school notified Kaplan of the issues prior to any disciplinary action; it terminated him pursuant to school rules that allow the school to terminate a faculty member for "[n]eglect of or refusal to perform one's duty" that "substantially impairs [their] effectiveness as a faculty member"; it conducted a post-termination hearing (a "Cadillac plan of due process"); and an alternative pre-deprivation hearing wouldn't have been any more protective of Kaplan's property right in his faculty position.
The court held that Kaplan forfeited any reputational-interest claim because he didn't request a name-clearing hearing. It ruled that the school didn't violate his career interest, because it didn't prevent Kaplan from seeking future employment in his chosen career.
Finally, the court ruled that Kaplan misfired on his academic freedom claim. "Simply put, UofL suspended Kaplan because of his attempts to circumvent UofL's cost-control measures and not because of any ideas he advocated or research he conducted."
Saturday, August 14, 2021
Judge Paul Friedman (D.D.C.) ruled yesterday that a media organization had a First Amendment right to some of the videos that the Justice Department submitted in support of detaining a January 6 insurrectionist, but not others.
The case, In re: Application for Access to Video Exhibits, involves 11 videos that DOJ submitted in support of detaining a defendant who is charged in connection with the insurrection. Eight of these are not sealed; three are sealed.
The court ruled that the media organization had a First Amendment right to all eight unsealed videos, and to one of the sealed videos, because it had already been released.
As to the two other sealed videos, the court ruled that DOJ overcame "the presumption in favor of public access," because DOJ demonstrated a compelling interest that could be harmed if they were released (security at the Capitol, because the footage could "result in the layout, vulnerabilities, and security weaknesses of the U.S. Capitol being collected, exposed, and passed on to those who might wish to attack the Capitol again"), and because there's no alternative to non-disclosure of the videos that would protect this interest.
The court also ruled that the organization didn't have a right to these videos under the common law.
Friday, August 13, 2021
Judge Carl Nichols (D.D.C.) this week denied the Washington Post's motion to dismiss a defamation lawsuit by House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Ranking Member Devin Nunes. The ruling means that this portion of Nunes's case can move forward.
The case, Nunes v. WP Company, arose out of Washington Post reporting on Nunes's activities related to former President Trump's claims that President Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower during the 2020 presidential campaign. The Post reported that Nunes "was given access at the White House to intelligence files that Nunes believed would buttress his baseless claims of the Obama administration spying on Trump Tower," and that Nunes saw the documents "reportedly late at night, earning the episode the nickname 'the midnight run.'"
But Nunes said around the time that there was no evidence of wiretaps of Trump Tower, even as he also expressed "concern that other surveillance activities were used against President Trump and his associates," and thought it was "very possible" that Trump and others might have been caught up in surveillance directed at others.
Nunes complained to the Post and, that same day, sued. The Post then printed revisions, saying that the timing of Nunes's visit to the White House was "unclear," and that Nunes himself never said that Trump Tower was wiretapped (instead, Trump did). But the revisions didn't take back the "baseless claims" language. Nunes amended his complaint to incorporate the revisions.
The Post moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that its article was neither false nor defamatory, and that Nunes failed to sufficiently allege that the Post published the article with actual malice, among other reasons.
The court denied the motion. The court wrote that even the Post's revision said that Nunes made "baseless" claims, when he didn't: He only claimed that intelligence activities touched on the Trump campaign (of which there was evidence by November 2020, so this wasn't "baseless"), not that Trump Tower was wiretapped (which wasn't true, but Nunes didn't say it). Moreover, the court said that the Post's false claim could also be defamatory:
Taken as a whole, the article says (or at least a reasonable juror could understand the article to say) that Nunes had made baseless claims about spying on Trump Tower and then visited the White House to inspect documents that might support those baseless claims. And a reasonable juror could conclude that an elected official is ridiculous or unfit for office if he searched for evidence to support baseless claims.
The court ruled that Nunes sufficiently alleged actual malice, or reckless disregard of the truth, because the Post itself had previously reported that Nunes denied Trump's claims about a wiretap at Trump Tower.
The court noted, however, that Nunes now has "to establish by clear and convincing evidence that, even in light of the corrections the Post did issue, it published statements with actual malice."
Thursday, August 12, 2021
Judge Carl Nichols (D.D.C.) denied the motions of Sidney Powell, Rudolph Guiliani, and Mike Lindell and My Pillow to dismiss Dominion Voting Systems's lawsuits against them for defamation. The ruling is only preliminary; it only means that Dominion sufficiently pleaded defamation to withstand the defendants' motions to dismiss, not that Dominion prevails on the merits. Still, it doesn't bode well for the defendants.
The case grew out of the defendants' many, er, inventive and unsubstantiated claims about Dominion Voting Systems's role in the 2020 presidential election. In particular, all three made public claims--again, many of them, and utterly unsubstantiated--to the effect that Dominion threw the election to President Biden.
Dominion sued, arguing that the defendants defamed the corporation, among other things. The defendants separately filed motions to dismiss, arguing that Dominion's defamation claims failed on their face, also among other things. The cases were designated as "related," and, in a consolidated ruling, the court flatly rejected the defendants' claims.
In particular, the court rejected Powell's argument that her statements couldn't have been defamatory, because they were either "opinions" or "legal theories." The court parsed just a handful of her statements and easily concluded that they were neither opinion nor legal theories.
The court also rejected Powell's and My Pillow's arguments that Dominion failed to allege "actual malice." Again, the court parsed just a few of their outlandish statements (along with the fabricated evidence, and lack of evidence, to support them) and easily concluded that Dominion met this standard in its complaint.
The court rejected Guiliani's arguments in support of his motion to dismiss on different grounds. (Guiliani didn't argue that Dominion failed to sufficiently allege its defamation claim against him.)
Friday, July 2, 2021
The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that California's requirement that tax-exempt organizations operating in the state disclose the names and addresses of their major donors violated the First Amendment.
The ruling strikes California's requirement from the books. It puts similar reporting and disclosure requirements on the chopping block, and it could even lay the groundwork for striking campaign finance disclosure requirements.
The case, Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta, involved California's requirement that tax-exempt organizations in the state provide to the state attorney general their IRS Form 990, along with Schedule B, which includes the names and addresses of major donors. The state says that it needs the information in order to police misconduct by charities.
Organizations sued, arguing that the requirement violated their First Amendment rights. A sharply divided Court--6-3, along conventional ideological lines--agreed.
The six-justice majority ruled that California's requirement did not sufficiently serve its interest in policing misconduct:
There is a dramatic mismatch, however, between the interest that the Attorney General seeks to promote and the disclosure regime that he has implemented in service of that end. . . .
Given the amount and sensitivity of this information harvested by the State, one would expect Schedule B collection to form an integral part of California's fraud detection efforts. It does not. To the contrary, the record amply supports the District Court's finding that there was not "a single, concrete instance in which pre-investigation collection of a Schedule B did anything to advance the Attorney General's investigative, regulatory or enforcement efforts."
The Court ruled the requirement overbroad and facially unconstitutional, which means that it is unconstitutional not just in this case, but in every conceivable application.
The six-justice majority split on the level of scrutiny to apply to such requirements. Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Kavanaugh and Barrett, argued that "exacting scrutiny" is the right standard for all disclosure requirements, with no least-restrictive-means requirement. Justice Thomas argued that the more stringent strict scrutiny applied. (Justice Thomas also argued that the Court shouldn't rule the requirement facially unconstitutional, just unconstitutional in this case.) Justice Alito, joined by Justice Gorsuch, wrote that he was "not prepared at this time to hold that a single standard applies to all disclosure requirements."
Still, all six agreed that the requirement failed either level of scrutiny in this case, and five (minus Justice Thomas) agreed that it was therefore facially unconstitutional.
Justice Sotomayor wrote the dissent, joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan. Justice Sotomayor argued that the Court wrongly heightened the standard for disclosure requirements, failed to demand that the plaintiffs show a real harm or actual burden, and wrongly held the requirement facially invalid.
In so holding, the Court discards its decades-long requirement that, to establish a cognizable burden on their associational rights, plaintiffs must plead and prove that disclosure will likely expose them to objective harms, such as threats, harassment, or reprisals. It also departs from the traditional, nuanced approach to First Amendment challenges, whereby the degree of means-end tailoring required is commensurate to the actual burdens on associational rights. Finally, it recklessly holds a state regulation facially invalid despite petitioners' failure to show that a substantial proportion of those affected would prefer anonymity, much less that they are objectively burdened by the loss of it.
She noted that "[t]oday's analysis marks reporting and disclosure requirements with a bull's-eye."
Thursday, June 17, 2021
Court Says Philly's Anti-Discrimination Contract Provision Violates Free Exercise, but Keeps Smith on Books
The Supreme Court ruled today that the city of Philadelphia violated Catholic Social Service's free exercise rights when it terminated CSS's foster-care contract pursuant to a clause that prohibits discrimination against same-sex adopting couples, but also allows exceptions at the "sole discretion" of the Commissioner.
At the same time, the Court declined to reconsider Employment Div., Dep't of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, which holds that religiously neutral and generally applicable laws that have an incidental burden on religion must only satisfy rational basis review.
As a result, the ruling is a short-term victory for CSS (which the city will likely quickly undo--see below). But it puts off the Big Issue--whether Smith is still valid law--for another day. (This issue will certainly come back to the Court, and the Court will almost certainly change the rational-basis test in Smith, raising the standard of review and thus making it easier for religious groups or individuals to challenge neutral, generally applicable laws. It's just a matter of when.)
The case, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, arose when the city informed CSS that the city could no longer contract with CSS for foster-care services so long as CSS refused to certify same-sex couples as foster-care parents. (Instead, CSS said it would refer such a certification to another social-services agency.) The city claimed that CSS's refusal to certify same-sex couples violated a non-discrimination provision in its contract with the city and the city's Fair Practices Ordinance. CSS sued, arguing that the City violated its free exercise rights, and urging the Court to overturn Smith.
The Supreme Court agreed. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. The Court held that the anti-discrimination contract provision was not generally applicable, because it allows the Commissioner to grant an exception in the Commissioner's sole discretion. Moreover, the Court held a second contractual provision, which categorically barred discrimination (with no exceptions), had to be read in harmony with the exception in the first provision--in other words, that the exception still applied. Finally, the Court held that the city's Fair Practices Ordinance didn't apply, because foster care isn't a "public accommodation" under the Ordinance.
Because no generally applicable law applied, the Court said that Smith was the wrong test. Instead, the Court applied strict scrutiny (under Church of Lukumi Bablu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah). The Court held that the city lacked a sufficiently compelling interest to exclude CSS, and ruled that the city's action violated the Free Exercise Clause.
The ruling is narrow--it hangs on the exception in the non-discrimination clause in the city's contract with CSS. As a result, the city can easily dodge a free exercise problem by simply omitting the exception from the clause in its contract with CSS. (The city says it never used the exception, anyway.)
Moreover, the ruling doesn't do anything to Smith or the rational-basis test for religiously neutral, generally applicable laws that incidentally burden religion. This question will surely come back to the Court, though (maybe even in a next round in this very case, if the city omits the exception from its contract and holds CSS in violation). And when it does, the Court will almost certainly change the test, making it easier for religious groups or individuals to challenge neutral, generally applicable laws as violating free exercise.
Justice Barrett concurred, joined by Justice Kavanaugh and (in part) Justice Breyer. She noted that the Court would need to work through a number of questions before it overruled Smith, and that the best approach might not be to categorically apply strict scrutiny to these kinds of claims.
Justice Alito wrote a sharp and lengthy concurrence, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch. He argued that the Court should overrule Smith and replace it with the test that preceded Smith (in Sherbert) and that Congress later adopted in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act: "A law that imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise can be sustained only if it is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest."
Justice Gorsuch wrote his own concurrence, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito. He argued that the Court likely got it wrong on the applicability of the Fair Practices Ordinance--that in fact, the Ordinance "is both generally applicable and applicable to CSS"--and on the separate contract provision that categorically prohibited discrimination. Justice Gorsuch argued that the Court's attempts to maneuver around Smith thus failed, that the Court should've addressed Smith, and that it should've overturned it.
Thursday, June 3, 2021
Check out David Cole, Jameel Jaffer, and Ted Olson's piece in the NYT on transparency at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The FISC "authorizes panoramic surveillance programs that can have profound implications for the rights of millions of Americans, but many of its significant decisions have been withheld from the public."
The three and others teamed up on a cert. petition, asking SCOTUS to rule on whether the First Amendment provides a qualified right of public access to the FISC's significant opinions. (The FISC and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review both ruled that they lacked jurisdiction to hear the question.) The Court hasn't yet decided whether to take up the case. Here's the docket, with amicus briefs supporting the cert. petition.
Monday, April 26, 2021
The Eleventh Circuit ruled last week that a witness to a highway accident didn't have a clearly established right to photograph police activity on the median. The court granted an officer qualified immunity against the witness's First Amendment claim and dismissed the case.
The case, Crocker v. Beatty, arose when James Crocker stopped to take pictures of an accident on the median of I-95 in Florida. Martin County Deputy Sheriff Steven Beatty confiscated Crocker's phone and placed him in a patrol vehicle. Crocker sued, alleging a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech, among other things.
The Eleventh Circuit ruled that Beatty enjoyed qualified immunity, because Crocker had no clearly established right to photograph police activity on a highway median. The court said that circuit precedent, Smith v. City of Cumming, established only that "[t]he First Amendment protects the right to gather information about what public officials do on public property, and specifically, a right to record matters of public interest." The court said that this was too vague a statement to create a clearly established right to photograph police "on the median of a major highway at the rapidly evolving scene of a fatal crash," in "the chaos of a fatal car crash," by "a citizen who (as we will explain shortly) might well have been photographing the incident from an unlawful vantage point" (although Beatty specifically told Crocker that he wasn't violating the law).
Judge Martin dissented, arguing that Smith clearly established the right.
Wednesday, April 21, 2021
The First Circuit ruled last week that a Massachusetts police department did not violate an officer's free-speech rights by taking disciplinary action against the officer after the officer first reported another officer's misconduct, and later made threats and false claims to his superior and an independent investigator. The court ruled that the department would've taken the same disciplinary action regardless of the officer's protected speech.
The case, Gutwill v. City of Framingham, started when officer Matthew Gutwill filed a complaint against another officer that the other officer gave false testimony at a suppression hearing. The department concluded that Gutwill had "good cause" to make the complaint, but that the allegations were unsubstantiated.
The department later rotated Gutwill out of his DEA taskforce position and made other changes that affected his overtime and privileges. Gutwill complained about those changes to senior officers, including a call to the department chief, where Gutwill made threatening comments, told the chief that federal agents had recorded the deputy chief on a wiretap as part of a drug investigation, and told the chief that he (Gutwill) had reported his concerns to the FBI.
The chief reported the call, and the department appointed an independent investigator. The investigator initially concluded that Gutwill had not been truthful in denying his threats to the chief. The department placed Gutwill on administrative leave pending the completion of the investigation. The investigator later concluded that Gutwill lied to her (the investigator), too, about his (Gutwill's) statements about the deputy chief. In response, the department suspended Gutwill for five days without pay for dishonesty and conduct unbecoming an officer. An independent hearing officer concluded that Gutwill violated department regulations on honesty and conduct.
Gutwill sued. The district court ruled against him, and the First Circuit affirmed. The court held that the department demonstrated that it would've taken the same disciplinary actions whether or not Gutwill engaged in protected speech. The court said that the chief had good cause to report the call with Gutwill, and that the hearing officer's conclusion that Gutwill violated department rules was "an adequate, non-retaliatory basis for Gutwill's discipline." It also noted that the investigator's conclusion that Gutwill was dishonest with her provided yet another independent reason for Gutwill's discipline.
Monday, April 12, 2021
The Seventh Circuit ruled on Friday that a state governor can limit media access to press conferences, so long as the limits are reasonable and viewpoint neutral. The ruling rebuffs the plaintiffs' challenges and allows the governor to continue to limited access to press conferences based on viewpoint neutral criteria.
The case, MacIver Institute for Public Policy v. Evers, arose when Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers prevented two reporters from the MacIver Institute from attending his limited-access press conferences. Evers restricted access based on a set of criteria that included things like the length of time that a media outlet has published news, whether a media outlet is a periodical or has an established television or radio presence, whether the reporters are paid or full-time correspondents, and whether the reporters and media outlet are "bona fide" and "of repute in their profession," among other similar criteria. The Institute sued, arguing that free speech and free press guaranteed a right to equal access for all media.
The court rejected the Institute's challenge. It ruled that the governor's limited-access press conferences were "nonpublic" forums, and that the governor permissibly limited access based on criteria that had nothing to do with a media outlet's viewpoint. Moreover, the court noted that the Institute provided no evidence that Evers applied the viewpoint neutral criteria in a viewpoint-based way. The court noted that under the governor's viewpoint-neutral criteria, the governor allowed access to a variety of media across the range of political ideologies, and that the governor similarly disallowed access to a variety of media across the range of political ideologies.
The Supreme Court on Friday granted a motion to enjoin California's at-home COVID restrictions pending appeal at the Ninth Circuit. (The Ninth Circuit previously denied the same motion.) The ruling means that California cannot apply its restriction on at-home religious gatherings to three households to the plaintiffs, at least for now (though likely forever).
The Court compared the state's treatment of private, at-home religious gatherings (restricted to three households) with its treatment of "hair salons, retail stores, personal care services, movie theaters, private suites at sporting events and concerts, and indoor restaurants" (allowing more than three households at a time). The Court said that the different treatment meant that the state had to justify its at-home restrictions under strict scrutiny as to these plaintiffs--and that it couldn't.
Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, dissented. Justice Kagan wrote that the Court looked to the wrong comparators:
California limits religious gatherings in homes to three households. If the State also limits all secular gatherings in homes to three households, it has complied with the First Amendment. And the State does exactly that: It has adopted a blanket restriction on at-home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike. California need not, as the per curiam insists, treat at-home religious gatherings the same as hardware stores and hair salons--and thus unlike at-home secular gatherings, the obvious comparator here.
She also argued that the state had good reason to treat at-home gatherings differently than gatherings in stores and salons: the district court found, and the Ninth Circuit acknowledged, that "those activities do pose lesser risks . . . ."
Chief Justice Roberts would've denied the motion, although he did not join Justice Kagan's dissent.
Friday, December 18, 2020
The Supreme Court yesterday rejected a religious private school's challenge to Kentucky's school-closing order, at least for now, given that the order is set to expire shortly. But the move allows the religious school to renew its challenge should the order come back into effect in January.
The action differs from another Court action earlier this week, remanding a case that challenges Colorado's capacity restrictions as applied to religious services. In the Colorado case, the Court's action, taken together with its earlier ruling in a New York case, will probably end the state's restrictions--even though the state had already revoked its restriction (in light of the New York case). In other words, the Court seemed to stretch to effectively strike Colorado's restrictions. In the Kentucky case, in contrast, the Court declined to intervene because the restriction is set to expire soon. In other words, the Court stayed its hand, even though the restriction was in place at the time of the ruling, because it would soon expire.
The case tests Kentucky's school-closing order--an order that applies to all schools (secular and religious) in the state. A religious school challenged the order, arguing that it violated the Free Exercise Clause, because a companion order permitted other in-person activities (restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters, indoor weddings, bowling alleys, and gaming halls) to remain open. (This, even though the order treated all schools alike.) A district court issued a preliminary injunction against the school closing order, but the Sixth Circuit stayed the injunction pending appeal (so that the order remained valid as the religious school appealed). The Supreme Court denied the religious school's petition to vacate the stay, largely or entirely because it's set to expire soon.
The Court said "[u]nder all circumstances, especially the timing and the impending expiration of the Order, we deny the application without prejudice to the applicants or other parties seeking a new preliminary injunction if the Governor issues a school-closing order that applies in the new year."
Justices Alito and Gorsuch wrote separate dissents, but joined each other's. Justice Alito argued that the Court should've granted relief, because "timing is in no way the applicants' fault." Justice Gorsuch wrote that the Sixth Circuit failed to consider the school-closing order alongside the business-closing order--and therefore failed to compare the closed religious school to open businesses---in evaluating whether the two orders together discriminated against religion. He also argued that the Sixth Circuit failed to consider a "hybrid" claim, that the school-closing order also violated the fundamental right of parents "to direct the education of their children."
Tuesday, December 15, 2020
The Supreme Court effectively struck Colorado's previous Covid-19 capacity restriction as applied to a rural Colorado church and its pastor. The Court vacated a lower court's ruling that upheld the restriction and remanded the case with instructions to reconsider it in light of the Court's ruling last month in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo.
The ruling means that the lower court will almost certainly strike Colorado's previous restriction as applied to the church. But because the case tests the previous restriction, it'll have no immediate effect on the plaintiffs or the state.
Today's ruling in High Plains Harvest Church v. Polis comes less than a month after the Court struck New York's Covid-19 capacity restrictions as to the plaintiffs in Roman Catholic Diocese. Today's ruling contains no analysis; it simply vacates the lower court ruling and remands the case in light of that earlier ruling.
High Plains tests Colorado's restriction "dial," which previously treated houses of worship more favorably than comparable "indoor events" and "restaurants," but less favorable than certain "critical" businesses. But after the Court ruled in Roman Catholic Diocese--and specifically in order to comply with that ruling--the state changed its dial and removed specific numeric capacity limitations on churches.
Justice Kagan wrote a dissent, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor. She argued that the Court needn't consider the case, because it's moot.
The state in Catholic Diocese also removed its restriction before that case came to the Court. The difference in High Plains is that Colorado removed its restrictions specifically in response to the Court's ruling in Catholic Diocese. In other words, Colorado is far less likely to reverse its decision, creating a capable-of-repetition-but-evading-review exception to mootness. This suggests that the Court is either loosening up its mootness exception doctrine, or (more likely) reaching for cases to expand religious freedom under the Free Exercise Clause.
Thursday, November 26, 2020
The Supreme Court yesterday granted an application to temporarily halt the enforcement of New York's "red zone" and "orange zone" occupancy limits to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America, the plaintiffs challenging the restrictions. The ruling means that New York cannot apply its red- and orange-zone restrictions to the plaintiffs as their case works its way through the lower courts. (It's currently on appeal at the Second Circuit.) But it also telegraphs the way the Court will rule when the case eventually comes to it on the merits.
The 5-4 ruling reflected the conventional divide on the Court (with Chief Justice Roberts siding with the three progressives). It also revealed a rift between Justice Gorsuch and Chief Justice Roberts, as Justice Gorsuch took aim at the Chief for his earlier opinion in South Bay. The ruling illustrates the impact of Justice Amy Coney Barrett: it almost certainly would've come out the other way if Justice Ginsburg were still on the Court.
The Court held that New York's 10- and 25-person occupancy restrictions (the red- and orange-zone restrictions, respectively) likely violate the Free Exercise Clause. The per curiam opinion said that the zones "single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment" in comparison to secular "essential" businesses like "acupuncture facilities, camp grounds, garages[, and] plants manufacturing chemicals and microelectronics and transportation facilities." The Court said that because the restrictions are not "neutral" and of "general applicability," they must satisfy strict scrutiny, and that they failed. The Court noted that New York's zones are far more restrictive than other COVID-related regulations that the Court has considered, that "there is no evidence that the applicants have contributed to the spread of COVID-19," and that the state could achieve its objective (to minimize the risk of transmission) with less restrictive means, for example, tying the occupancy limits to the size of the synagogue or church (rather than setting the limit at a particular number).
Chief Justice Roberts dissented, arguing that an injunction isn't necessary, because the state lifted the red- and orange-zone restrictions on the plaintiffs.
Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, arguing that the injunction isn't necessary and that the plaintiffs didn't meet the requirements for an "extraordinary remedy."
Justice Sotomayor dissented, too, joined by Justice Kagan, arguing that the state treats synagogues and churches more favorably than similar secular activities (like concerts), and that the state's "essential services" that enjoy more favorable treatment are distinguishable based on the science.
Wednesday, November 4, 2020
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the case testing whether the city's enforcement of a clause in its foster-care contracts that prohibits discrimination by sexual orientation violates Catholic Social Service's Free Exercise rights. Here's my preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
The City of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services (DHS) operates the City’s foster-care program. DHS takes legal custody of children whom courts have removed from their homes, and places the children in a foster home or facility that is appropriate to each child’s interests and needs.
In order to help operate the program, DHS contracts with private-sector social-service providers. Some of these providers serve as “Community Umbrella Agencies” (CUAs), which provide social services to foster children. Some operate congregate-care facilities, which provide group housing for children. And some operate as “Foster Family Care Agencies” (FFCAs), which conduct home studies of potential foster parents, issue certifications for families that meet state criteria, and, upon referral from DHS, place children with foster parents that the FFCAs have certified. State law delegates authority to FFCAs, so that FFCAs exercise state power when they evaluate and certify foster parents. Private agencies have no authority to place children with foster parents without an FFCA contract. Still, DHS’s standard contract says that a contracting agency “is an independent contractor,” and not “an employee or agent of the City.”
DHS contracts include a standard nondiscrimination clause. The clause says that FFCAs must comply with the City’s Fair Practices Ordinance, which prohibits discrimination based on any protected characteristic, including sexual orientation. The contracts also say that contractors “shall not discriminate” in any “public accommodations practices” on the basis of sexual orientation.
Catholic Social Services (CSS) is a faith-based social-service organization that has long contracted with DHS to provide services in the City’s foster-care program. On March 13, 2018, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a piece titled “Two foster agencies in Philly won’t place kids with LGBTQ people.” The story reported that CSS and another social-service organization would not certify same-sex couples for foster-care placements. In the article, the Archdiocese’s spokesperson confirmed CSS’s longstanding religion-based policy against providing foster-care certification for unmarried couples and for same-sex married couples, but emphasized that CSS had received no inquiries from same-sex couples. (CSS maintains that if it received such an inquiry, it would refer the couple to another agency.)
Two days after the story ran, the City Council passed a resolution condemning “discrimination that occurs under the guise of religious freedom.” Around the same time, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (PCHR), at the request of the Mayor, sent a letter to the Auxiliary Bishop who oversees CSS. The letter asked the Bishop to answer questions about CSS’s policies, including whether “you have authority as a local affiliate/branch of a larger organiz[ation] to create or follow your own policies.” (CSS maintains that the Mayor previously said that he “could care less about the people of the Archdiocese,” called the Archbishop’s actions “not Christian,” and called on Pope Francis “to kick some ass here!”)
The Mayor also contacted DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa. Figueroa met with CSS representatives “to find a mutually agreeable solution.” During the meeting, she urged CSS representatives to follow “the teachings of Pope Francis,” and told them that “times have changed,” “attitudes have changed,” and that CSS should change its policy because it was “not 100 years ago.” CSS maintained its position, however, and DHS then halted its referrals to CSS for the rest of its contractual term, through the City’s Fiscal Year 2018.
CSS’s FY 2018 FFCA contract expired on June 30, 2018. DHS repeatedly expressed its “strong desire to keep CSS as a foster care agency,” and offered CSS FFCA contracts on the same terms as other agencies. In FYs 2019 and 2020, DHS offered CSS a choice between the same contract it offered to other FFCA agencies and a “maintenance contract” to provide foster-care services for families that CSS was already supporting. CSS chose the maintenance contract. (Although CSS declined to enter into an FFCA contract, the agency nevertheless continued to contract with DHS to provide CUA and a congregate-care services.)
In May 2018, while its FY 2018 FFCA contract was still in force, CSS sued DHS. CSS argued that DHS’s move to halt referrals violated the Free Exercise Clause, the Establishment Clause, the Free Speech Clause, and the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act. The district court denied CSS’s motion for a preliminary injunction, and the Third Circuit and the Supreme Court denied CSS’s motion for an injunction pending appeal. Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, 139 S. Ct. 49 (2018). (Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch noted their dissent.) The Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling. This appeal followed.
The case includes three distinct issues. We’ll review them one by one.
Free Exercise Clause
Under the Free Exercise Clause, a government action that targets religion or a religious practice must be narrowly tailored, or necessary, to meet a compelling government interest. This test, “strict scrutiny,” is the most rigorous test known to constitutional law; under strict scrutiny, the challenged government action almost always fails. Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993).
On the other hand, a government action that is generally applicable and neutral with regard to religion, but that nevertheless has an “incidental” effect on religion, must only be rationally related to a legitimate government interest. This test, “rational basis review,” is one of the more lenient tests known to constitutional law, and the challenged government action almost always passes. Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).
In this case, CSS argues that DHS’s nondiscrimination policy targets the agency’s religious exercise, that it is not generally applicable, and that it fails strict scrutiny. CSS claims that “[t]he City has repeatedly shifted policies,” developed post hoc rationalizations for its nondiscrimination policy, and “changed the rules in response to CSS”—all proving that the City targeted CSS’s religious exercise. Moreover, CSS contends that the actions and statements of the City Council, the Mayor, the PCHR, and DHS all reflect hostility toward CSS’s religious beliefs. CSS asserts that the City’s nondiscrimination policy is not generally applicable, because it allows for exemptions by a “Waiver/Exemption Committee” for “constitutional issues” and by “the Commissioner or the Commissioner’s designee, in his/her sole discretion.” CSS contends that the City’s exemptions undermine its own interests, and that the City does not even apply nondiscrimination to its own actions.
CSS argues that the City’s nondiscrimination policy cannot satisfy strict scrutiny. CSS says that the City’s “hostility towards CSS’s religious exercise” and the policy’s many exemptions both show that the City’s interest cannot be compelling. And it claims that the City’s categorical freeze on CSS referrals was not narrowly tailored to meet any City interest, because the move meant that CSS could not place children in already-certified homes, and because the City could instead simply require CSS to refer same-sex couples to another FFCA. (CSS maintains that it already has a policy to do this.)
(The government weighs in to support CSS on this point, and this point only. It argues that the City’s policy targets CSS’s exercise of religion and fails strict scrutiny for many of the same reasons. Notably, the government does not argue that the Court should overrule Smith. It also does not argue that the City violated CSS’s free speech.)
The City responds that its nondiscrimination policy is a neutral law of general applicability, and that it easily satisfies Smith’s rational basis review. The City starts by claiming that it has “significantly greater leeway” in directing its own employees and contractors than when it regulates private individuals. It says that this “extra power” applies with full force to this case, and that the Court should “be especially hesitant to infer anti-religious animus from stray remarks of government officials.”
The City argues that its nondiscrimination requirement is generally applicable and neutral with regard to religion. It says that every FFCA contract contains an identical nondiscrimination requirement, and (contrary to CSS’s understanding) that DHS has no authority to make exceptions and, indeed, has never done so. The City contends that the policy contains “no trace of religious hostility,” and that CSS wrongly infers hostility “from the statements of persons who played no role in the decisionmaking process and from events far removed from the relevant decisions.”
Finally, the City argues that its nondiscrimination requirement does not require CSS to do anything contrary to its religious beliefs. In particular, the City says that neither the policy nor state law requires CSS “to endorse a couple’s relationship when certifying them as qualified foster parents.”
CSS argues that the City compels it to support nondiscrimination in violation of its right to free speech. CSS says that the City requires CSS, as a condition of participation in the foster care system, to issue written certifications of potential foster parents that “evaluat[e] and endors[e] same-sex and unmarried cohabitating relationships.” CSS maintains that this is “private speech,” based on Commissioner Figueroa’s testimony that the City has “nothing to do with” home studies, and does not control their content. CSS claims that the City violated its free speech by revoking its contract and attempting to “leverage a program it pays for to compel speech it does not pay for.” CSS claims that the City cannot justify these violations under strict scrutiny, for the same reasons that it cannot justify its violation of the Free Exercise Clause under strict scrutiny, above.
The City counters that its nondiscrimination policy simply does not compel CSS to say anything about the validity of same-sex relationships. Instead, the City claims that the policy simply regulates CSS’s conduct—not to discriminate against foster parents based on their sexual orientation.
CSS argues that the Court should overrule Smith and its rational basis review test. CSS claims that the Court designed the Smith test to apply when “legislatures make general laws and courts apply them.” But it says that government officials “often infringe religious exercise with non-neutral, non-general laws, and courts mistakenly apply Smith anyway.” (CSS contends that this is exactly what the City and the Third Circuit, respectively, did in this case.) CSS claims that the Smith test is therefore not an administrable standard, and that none of its predictions about its administrability came true. Moreover, CSS asserts that the Smith test lacks support in the text, history, and tradition of the Free Exercise Clause. It says that courts have done much better applying a higher level of scrutiny under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and similar state laws, and it argues that the Court should replace the Smith test with strict scrutiny, or at least a more rigorous test based on the “purpose and history” of the Free Exercise Clause. CSS maintains that under a proper heightened standard, the City’s move to freeze its contract would fail.
The City counters that the Court should not overrule Smith. The City says that this case is “an extremely poor vehicle to reconsider Smith,” because it involves government contracting (not direct government regulation) and because the City’s nondiscrimination policy satisfies strict scrutiny, anyway. (The City and intervenor Support Center for Child Advocates and Philadelphia Family Pride say that banning discrimination in its FFCA contracts is narrowly tailored to achieve the compelling government interests of eliminating discrimination based on sexual orientation and ensuring that children in foster care have access to all qualified families.) Moreover, it claims that the Smith test “has firm support” in the original meaning of the Constitution, and that it “has served as the predicate for three decades of precedents and legislative enactments.”
This case pits a plaintiff’s right to free exercise of religion against the government’s power to ban discrimination by sexual orientation—a tension that is increasingly familiar in today’s politics and constitutional law. Under existing free-exercise law, in Smith, a plaintiff’s religious rights would almost certainly give way to a government’s categorical ban on discrimination. But if a plaintiff can demonstrate that a government’s ban is not generally applicable or neutral with regard to religion, or that a government official targeted or exhibited hostility toward the plaintiff’s religion, then a plaintiff’s free-exercise claim would almost surely prevail.
The Court last addressed this tension just three Terms ago, in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018). In that case, a baker claimed that Colorado’s ban on discrimination would require him to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple in violation of his right to free exercise. The Court, in a seven-to-two ruling, held that members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission exhibited hostility toward the baker’s religion in considering his case, and that the Commission therefore violated his free-exercise rights. The Court, however, did not say whether Colorado’s anti-discrimination law would violate the baker’s religious rights without that kind of hostility, under the Smith test. (We expected to see other similar challenges like this, especially in the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2071 (2015), where the Court struck state laws that banned same-sex marriage. But the Court has not (yet) taken these cases. In fact, the Court earlier this month declined to take up the appeal of Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because of her religious beliefs. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito issued a strong statement on the Court’s denial of certiorari that took aim at Obergefell and elevated Davis’s religious claim. Davis v. Ermold, 2020 WL 5881537 (Oct. 5, 2020).)
Masterpiece Cakeshop and Fulton well illustrate the increasingly familiar tension between nondiscrimination by sexual orientation and free exercise. Fulton now gives the Court another shot to reckon with it.
The parties in Fulton frame at least some of their free-exercise arguments around Masterpiece Cakeshop. CSS says that the City exhibited exactly the same kind of hostility toward religion that members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission exhibited against the baker in that case. The City, for its part, contends that its officers did not exhibit this kind of hostility, and that, in any event, those officers weren’t in the decisionmaking loop. The City also says that the Court should grant greater leeway to the City in regulating its contractors than the Court granted the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in regulating a private person (the baker).
If the Court sees Fulton through the lens of Masterpiece Cakeshop, these similarities and differences will matter. A ruling for CSS could continue the Court’s trend toward increasing free-exercise rights, while a ruling for the City could provide an important backstop to Masterpiece Cakeshop. Either way, though, if the Court sees Fulton through the lens of Masterpiece Cakeshop, it could retain the Smith test.
But if the Court also tackles the Smith issue, the case could be even more important. Smith was a hotly controversial ruling from the start, provoking legislative responses from the federal government (in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) and states (in “mini-RFRAs”). The case remains controversial today. Moreover, the issue comes to the Court as it has moved steadily in recent years to privilege the right to free exercise of religion. For these reasons, the issue seems well teed-up for the Court. If so, Fulton could accelerate the Court’s trend toward greater and greater religious rights, and even provide a capstone to the Court’s cases in this area by overruling Smith. At the same time, Fulton could restrict, at least to some degree, governments at all levels from enacting and enforcing generally applicable laws, like the nondiscrimination policy at issue in this case. But on the other hand, as the City points out, this may not be the right case for the Court to take such a significant step.
As to CSS’s free speech claim: don’t look for the Court to hang its hat here. The claim itself is weak; it’s overshadowed by the free-exercise issues; and the parties did not heavily brief it. Free speech may have been an obligatory adjunct to CSS’s claims (as it was in the baker’s case in Masterpiece Cakeshop), but this case is much more likely to be significant for what it’ll say about free exercise.