Saturday, April 17, 2021
The Seventh Circuit yesterday rebuffed the Cook County Clerk's challenge to a pair of consent decrees designed to monitor political patronage practices in that office and others. The ruling means that the decrees stay on the books (or, more precisely, on the district court's docket). But at the same time, the court warned that federalism concerns counsel in favor of resolving the case, and clearing the decrees from the court's docket, "swift[ly]."
The case, Shakman v. Clerk of Cook County, originated with two consent decrees, the "Shakman Decrees," from 1972 and 1991. The 1972 Decree enjoined Chicago and Cook County officials from "conditioning, basing or knowingly prejudicing or affecting any term or aspect of governmental employment, with respect to one who is at the time already a governmental employee, upon or because of any political reason or factor." The 1991 Decree expanded the 1972 Decree to cover hiring decisions: among other things, it required officials to post "prior public notice of the opportunity to apply for and be hired for" all positions, with just a few exceptions. (The City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District have since demonstrated substantial compliance and have been dismissed.)
While the Shakman Decrees remained on the district court's docket, there wasn't really any significant activity until 2019. That's when Shakman, the Voters Organization, and other plaintiffs moved for the appointment of a special master to monitor the Clerk's compliance with the Decrees. The plaintiffs claimed that the Clerk's hiring practices violated the 1991 Decree and that the Clerk took retaliatory actions against employees in violation of the 1972 Decree.
The Clerk opposed the motion and asked the magistrate judge to vacate both Decrees. After discovery and an evidentiary hearing, the magistrate judge found that the Clerk violated the Decrees, appointed a special master, and rejected the Clerk's request to vacate the Decrees. The Clerk appealed, arguing that the plaintiffs lacked standing, that the case raised nonjusticiable political questions, and that the Clerk's actions didn't violate the Decrees.
The Seventh Circuit disagreed. The court ruled first that the plaintiffs had standing, because at least one member of the Voters Organization was a current employee in the Clerk's office who refused to engage in political patronage and suffered reprisal. The court said next that the case didn't raise a nonjusticiable political question, because "both the legal right and applicable standard here"--free association under Elrod v. Burns--"are evident and judicially manageable." Finally, the court held that the magistrate judge didn't clearly err in concluding that the Clerk's "ongoing violations reflect the precise political patronage the Consent Decrees seek to end."
The court noted, however, that federalism considerations counsel in favor of ending the Decrees now, or very soon:
Our federal structure, including the Article III Case or Controversy requirement, does not contemplate federal courts putting units of state or local government under what amounts to static and permanent consent decrees. Federal injunctions interfere with local control over local decision making, and, in turn, local democracy does not work as our federal constitutional design envisions.
Wednesday, April 14, 2021
The full Sixth Circuit rejected a facial challenge to Ohio's law that bans doctors from performing an abortion with the knowledge that the woman's reason for abortion is that the fetus has Down syndrome. The ruling means that the law stays on the books, but may be subject to as-applied challenges when it goes into effect.
The case, Preterm-Cleveland v. McCloud, tested Ohio's law that prohibits doctors from performing abortions when the doctor knows that the woman seeks an abortion because the fetus has Down syndrome. The court said that the law "advances the State's legitimate interests" in
protecting: (1) the Down syndrome community from the stigma associated with the practice of Down-syndrome-selective abortions, (2) pregnant women and their families from coercion by doctors who advocate abortion of Down-syndrome-afflicated fetuses, and (3) the integrity and ethics of the medical profession by preventing doctors from becoming witting participants in Down-syndrome-selective abortions.
The court also said that the law doesn't have "the purpose or effect of placing a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion." Here, the court emphasized that the law only prohibits a doctor from performing an abortion when the doctors knows that the woman seeks an abortion because the fetus has Down syndrome. The court asked, and answered:
Would any woman who is otherwise set on having an abortion choose not to have that abortion (and instead have the baby) solely because she could not have the abortion performed by the specific doctor to whom she desires to reveal (or has revealed) that her reason for the abortion is that she does not want a child with Down syndrome? Taking the next step, would a significant number of such women do so? We think the answer to both questions is clearly no, but more importantly, the plaintiffs have certainly made no such showing.
As to any accidental reveal, the court said that a woman would only have to go to a different doctor--one who didn't know of her purpose.
The court also declined to halt the law based on its lack of exception for the life or health of the woman. It said that the plaintiffs had to raise this claim in an as-applied challenge, not a facial one.
The Ninth Circuit denied qualified immunity to two social workers who knowingly and falsely represented to a juvenile court that they had made reasonable efforts to notify parents about medical examinations of their children. The false representations led to court-ordered exams without the knowledge or consent of the parents. The ruling means that the parents' civil-rights suit against the social workers can move forward.
The case, Benavidez v. County of San Diego, arose when social workers falsely told a juvenile court, as part of child removal proceedings, that they had made reasonable efforts to notify the children's parents when they sought a court order for medical examinations of the children. Based on the social workers' false statements, the court ordered medical exams of the children. The parents only learned of the exams after they occurred.
The parents sued, arguing that the social workers violated their due process rights by deceiving the juvenile court in procuring the orders for medical exams. The social workers argued that they enjoyed qualified immunity. The Ninth Circuit disagreed.
The court ruled that "Plaintiffs' claims sufficiently alleged a violation of their constitutional right to family association, which 'includes the right of parents to make important medical decisions for their children, and of children to have those decisions made by their parents rather than the state.'" More particularly, the court said that "[w]e have previously recognized a constitutional right under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to be free from judicial deception and fabrication of evidence in the context of civil child custody cases." The court ruled that the plaintiffs sufficiently pleaded facts to support a violation here.
The court went on to say that the right was well established at the time of the violation.
At the same time, the court rejected the plaintiffs' Monell claim for county liability. The court said that the plaintiffs failed to allege that county policy or the county's failure to train the social workers led to the violations. (County policy, in fact, required the social workers to obtain parental consent before the examination.)
Tuesday, April 13, 2021
The D.C. Circuit ruled on Friday that a private party can't challenge an Federal Election Commission decision not to enforce election law if the decision was based in any measure on agency discretion. The ruling effectively gives commissioners who successfully oppose enforcement action a get-out-of-judicial-review card simply by invoking discretion as any part of their explanation for not enforcing the law. The ruling also adds to the structural features that have paralyzed the FEC. (The FEC is comprised of six commissions, no more than three of either major political party. But it requires four votes to initiate an enforcement action. Partisan deadlock and quorum issues have created an impotent agency. This ruling only adds to those features, because it allows commissioners who vote against enforcement to insulate their decision simply by mentioning "discretion.")
The case, CREW v. FEC, arose when CREW sued the FEC for deciding not to enforce election law against New Models, a now-defunct non-profit. CREW filed a complaint against New Models for failing to comply with FECA's registration and reporting requirements for "political committees." But the FEC, by a 2-2 vote, decided not to pursue an investigation. The two commissioners who voted against an investigation wrote a 31-page, single-spaced opinion explaining their legal reasons why New Models wasn't a "political committee" under FECA. They added a final sentence, "For these reasons, and in exercise of our prosecutorial discretion, we voted against finding reason to believe that New Models violated the Act . . . ." (The commissioners dropped a footnote to their reference to "prosecutorial discretion" with a brief explanation: "Given the age of the activity and the fact that the organization appears no longer active, proceeding further would not be an appropriate use of Commission resources.")
CREW sued under FECA's provision that authorizes a private suit to challenge an FEC nonenforcement decision if it is "contrary to law." The D.C. Circuit ruled that the court couldn't review the decision, though, because it was "based even in part on prosecutorial discretion."
The court said that the ruling was a simple application of its previous ruling in Commission on Hope. In that case, the court said that under Heckler v. Chaney it couldn't review an FEC nonenforcement decision based on agency discretion. (Discretion formed a much more significant portion of the justification for nonenforcement in Commission on Hope, however.) It also said that FECA doesn't contain any standards for a court to judge an FEC decision based on discretion.
Judge Millett wrote a lengthy dissent, arguing that "the majority opinion creates an easy and automatic 'get out of judicial review free' card for the Federal Election Commission."
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.
Wednesday, March 31, 2021
Ninth Circuit Rebuffs Plaintiffs' Effort to Halt California's COVID Restrictions Based on Free Exercise
The Ninth Circuit yesterday denied plaintiffs' motion for an emergency injunction pending appeal to halt California's COVID restrictions as applied to their religious practices, among other claims. The ruling means that California's restrictions stay in place, at least for now.
The case raises, once again, the question of the relevant comparator in determining whether the restrictions are neutral with regard to religion, or whether they target religion.
The plaintiffs challenged California's restrictions on private "gatherings" as applied to their in-home religious studies. Under the state's restrictions, indoor and outdoor gatherings are limited to three households; and gatherings must be held in a large enough space to allow distancing of six feet, they must last no longer than two hours, and attendees must wear face coverings. Singing, chanting, shouting, and cheering are allowed at outdoor gatherings, but not indoor gatherings.
The plaintiffs argued that the restrictions prevent them from holding in-home Bible studies and communal worship with more than three households, even though California allows more than three households to engage in certain commercial activities. They said that this amounts to religious targeting, triggering strict scrutiny.
The court rejected the argument. The court said that the plaintiffs were looking to the wrong class of activities to compare: "When compared to analogous secular in-home private gatherings, the State's restrictions on in-home private religious gatherings are neutral and generally applicable and, thus, subject to rational basis review." The court said that "[t]here is no indication that the State is applying the restrictions to in-home private religious gatherings any differently than to in-home private secular gatherings." As to the restrictions' application to small businesses and commercial activities (like barbershops and tattoo parlors), the court acknowledged that these businesses are not subject to the three-household restriction, but noted that they're subject to a host of other restrictions that are directed to the particular, place-specific risks that they raise.
Judge Bumatay dissented, arguing that the state's restrictions target religion, because they don't apply equally to small businesses and commercial activities (again, like barbershops and tattoo parlors). Judge Bumatay would therefore apply strict scrutiny, rule that the plaintiffs showed that they'd likely succeed on the merits, and enjoin the restrictions.
U.S. Capitol Police Officers James Blassingame and Sidney Hemby sued former President Trump on Tuesday for inciting the January 6 insurrection. The complaint alleges a variety of torts and seeks compensatory and punitive damages.
Representative Bennie Thompson and Representative Eric Swalwell previously filed their own separate complaints against Trump and others, alleging civil-rights violations, a variety of torts, and interference with Congress's count of the electoral college votes.
Whatever other defenses Trump and other defendants may seek to assert, the president's official immunity is unlikely to work. Under Nixon v. Fitzgerald, a president is absolutely immune for civil damages for acts within the "outer perimeter" of the president's official responsibility. But allegations in all three complaints--not to mention the public record--put Trump's actions well outside this "outer perimeter." And the Thompson and Swalwell complaints specifically allege that Trump was acting in his personal capacity (not his official capacity) and for his personal benefit (and not in aid of the president's "constitutional office and functions").
Monday, March 29, 2021
The plaintiffs challenge the state's adoption of "unnecessary and burdensome new identification requirements for absentee voting"; restrictions on absentee drop boxes; ban on mobile polling places; prohibition on distributing unsolicited absentee ballot applications; prohibition on third-party ballot collection; authorization of third-party challenges to voter qualifications; invalidation of ballots cast before 5:00 p.m. in a precinct where a voter wasn't assigned; ban on giving food and drink to voters waiting in line; and compressed time period for voting in a runoff election.
The plaintiffs argue that the restrictions create an undue burden on the right to vote under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
Saturday, March 27, 2021
The Supreme Court ruled this week that a shooting by police officers is a "seizure" under the Fourth Amendment, even if the victim of the shooting escapes. The ruling is consistent with the holding in California v. Hodari D., a 1991 opinion authored by Justice Scalia. But the Court said that it didn't need to determine whether Hodari D. controlled, because the Court independently came to the same conclusion here.
The ruling doesn't end the case, though; it just allows it to move forward. The lower courts will still have to determine whether the seizure was "reasonable," whether the officers are entitled to qualified immunity, and what damages the plaintiff is entitled to.
The case, Torres v. Madrid, arose when officers shot at Roxanne Torres as she fled in her vehicle. (Torres sped away from the officers because she thought they were trying to carjack her.) The officers hit Torres, but she continued driving for 75 miles. She was airlifted to a hospital, where police arrested her the next day.
Torres sued the officers for unreasonably "seizing" her in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The officers argued that their shots couldn't have amounted to a seizure, because she got away.
The Court agreed with Torres. Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the Court that "[a]t the adoption of the Fourth Amendment, a 'seizure' was the 'act of taking by warrant' or 'of laying hold on suddenly'--for example, when an 'officer seizes a thief,'" but that it didn't "necessarily result in actual control or detention." The Court noted that at English common law "a corporal touch [was] sufficient to constitute an arrest, even though the defendant do[es] not submit." It said that "[e]arly American courts adopted this mere-touch rule . . . just as they embraced other common law principles of searches and seizures." (The Court went on to say that a touch must "objectively manifest an intent to restrain," that it's not measured from the perspective of the seized person, and that it a seizure "lasts only as long as the application of force.") It held that the officers' bullets constituted just such a "touch," and therefore constituted a Fourth Amendment seizure.
Justice Gorsuch dissented, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito. He argued that "[u]ntil today, a Fourth Amendment 'seizure' has required taking possession of someone or something," and that this didn't occur here.
Justice Barrett did not participate.
The Supreme Court ruled this week that Ford had sufficient contacts with states where plaintiffs suffered injuries in Ford vehicles to allow the plaintiffs to sue there. The ruling means that the plaintiffs can pursue their claims against Ford in states where "Ford had systematically served a market . . . for the very vehicles" that caused the injuries, even though the plaintiffs didn't purchase their vehicles in those states, and even though Ford did not manufacture or design them there.
The holding breaks no new ground. But the reasoning might.
The case, Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court, arose when plaintiffs who were injured in Ford vehicles in Montana and Minnesota sued the carmaker in those states. Ford argued that the state courts lacked personal jurisdiction, however, because the plaintiffs didn't buy the cars in those states, Ford didn't manufacture the cars there, and Ford didn't design the cars there--even though it had many other contacts with those states.
In other words, Ford said that there was no causal link between its behavior in the states and the plaintiffs' injuries.
The Court rejected this approach. In an opinion by Justice Kagan, the Court wrote that "Ford's causation-only approach finds no support in this Court's requirement of a 'connection' between a plaintiff's suit and a defendant's activities." The Court said that this result squares with language from World-Wide Volkswagen that "has appeared and reappeared in many cases since." Justice Alito summarized that language in his concurrence: "If a car manufacturer makes substantial efforts to sell vehicles in States A and B (and other States), and a defect in a vehicle first sold in State A causes injuries in an accident in State B, the manufacturer can be sued in State B."
In getting there, the Court looked to language in past opinions that said that a plaintiff's claims "must arise from or relate to the defendant's contacts" with the forum state. The Court read this as a disjunctive phrase, and said that while the first part ("arise from") requires causation, the second part ("relate to") doesn't. Even if the plaintiffs' claims here might not have "arose from" Ford contacts (in the causal sense), they certainly "related to" those contacts--and that's enough for personal jurisdiction.
Justice Alito and Justice Gorsuch (joined by Justice Thomas) wrote separate concurrences taking issue with that parsing of the phrase. Justice Alito worried that "[r]ecognizing 'relate to' as an independent basis for specific jurisdiction risks needless complications." Instead, he'd "leave the law exactly where it stood before we took these cases." Justice Gorsuch said the Court's approach was "unnecessary" to resolve the case. He'd revisit the modern approach (starting with International Shoe) and look instead to "the Constitution's original meaning." He suggested that for a case like this (with a defendant "nationwide corporation" whose "business is everywhere"), the defendant could be sued anywhere.
Wednesday, March 17, 2021
Twenty-one Republican state attorneys general wrote a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen yesterday objecting to provisions in the recently enacted federal stimulus bill that place certain restrictions on the $350 billion that is directed to cities, counties, and states.
In particular, the AGs objected to a provision that prohibits recipients of the funding from
us[ing] the funds . . . to either directly or indirectly offset a reduction in the net tax revenue of such State or territory resulting from a change in law, regulation, or administrative interpretation during the covered period that reduces any tax (by providing for a reduction in a rate, a rebate, a deduction, a credit, or otherwise) or delays the imposition of any tax or tax increase.
The AGs argue that the provision could prohibit states from reducing taxes in areas that have nothing to do with COVID relief or the stimulus bill, and that this would violate federalism principles. They say that the restriction, as written, is ambiguous, does not relate to COVID stimulus or relief, and "would effectively commandeer half of the States' fiscal ledgers, compelling States to adopt the one-way revenue ratchet of the current Congress for the next three years"--in violation of the conditioned spending test in South Dakota v. Dole.
According to the AGs, "such federal usurpation of state tax policy would represent the greatest attempted invasion of state sovereignty by Congress in the history of our Republic."
The AGs ask Secretary Yellen to confirm that the restriction "does not prohibit States from generally providing tax relief through the kinds of measures listed and discussed above and other, similar measures, but at most precludes express use of the funds provided under the Act for direct tax cuts rather than for the purposes specified by the Act." Without such assurance, they say that'll "take appropriate additional action . . . . "
UPDATE: Turns out Ohio, whose AG did not sign the letter, didn't want to wait for an answer from Yellen: it filed suit against Yellen, alleging more-or-less the same claims.
The Seventh Circuit ruled last week that Indiana's amended judicial bypass procedure violated the right to an abortion for minors. The court earlier ruled on the case (and struck the same amended bypass procedure), but the Supreme Court vacated that judgment and remanded the case in light of the Court's ruling last summer in June Medical. Last week, the Seventh Circuit came to the same result.
The case, Planned Parenthood v. Box, challenged Indiana's judicial bypass procedure. As amended, that procedure required a court to notify a minor's parents when the minor sought an abortion through judicial bypass of the state's parental-consent requirement, unless the judge finds that parental notification is not in the minor's best interest.
The district court originally ruled that the procedure created an undue burden on a minor's right to an abortion. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The appeals court applied the balancing test from Whole Women's Health, the 2016 Supreme Court case that struck Texas's admitting-privileges requirement. (Under the requirement, abortion doctors had to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the place where they performed abortions.) The Court in Whole Women's Health assessed whether the admitting-privileges requirement created an undue burden by balancing the burdens of the requirement on a woman's right to an abortion against the putative benefits of the requirement. It held that the requirement created substantial burdens, but no benefits. The Seventh Circuit similarly ruled that Indiana's judicial bypass procedure created substantial burdens, but no benefits. (The plaintiffs demonstrated that the procedure would create burdens on access, while the state failed to produce any evidence of benefits of the law.)
Then, last summer, the Supreme Court ruled in June Medical that Louisiana's admitting-privilege requirement (the same as Texas's requirement, struck in Whole Women's Health) also created an undue burden on a woman's right to an abortion. But the Court in June Medical split differently than in Whole Women's Health, because Justice Kavanaugh had replaced Justice Kennedy. (Justice Kennedy sided with the majority in Whole Women's Health, but Justice Kavanaugh sided with the dissent in June Medical.) In particular, Justice Breyer wrote for a four-justice plurality (including Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan) that Louisiana's law was unconstitutional for two reasons: stare decisis (because Louisiana's law was the same as Texas's law, struck in Whole Women's Health); and because the burdens of Louisiana's law outweighed the benefits, thus creating an undue burden under the Whole Women's Health balancing approach. Chief Justice Roberts concurred in the judgment based on stare decisis alone. But he also disagreed with the balancing approach. Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh wrote their own separate dissents.
The Court vacated the earlier Seventh Circuit ruling and remanded it for considering in light of June Medical. So the Seventh Circuit had to figure out whether June Medical changed the balancing test from Whole Women's Health that the Seventh Circuit had previously relied upon to strike Indiana's bypass procedure.
The Seventh Circuit last week ruled that June Medical did not change the balancing test. Under the Marks rule (which sorts out which opinion states the holding of the Court when, as in June Medical, there's no majority opinion), the court looked to Chief Justice Roberts's concurrence in June Medical as the "position taken by those Members who concurred in the judgment on the narrowest grounds." The Seventh Circuit held that Chief Justice Roberts's stare decisis rationale aligned with Justice Breyer's stare decisis rationale as the holding of the Court, and that the Court didn't otherwise alter or overrule the balancing approach in Whole Women's Health. (The court rejected the state's argument that Chief Justice Roberts's second rationale (that the balancing approach was wrong) aligned with the four dissenters' positions (also that the balancing approach was wrong) to create a majority that the balancing approach was wrong. The court explained that Chief Justice Roberts's second rationale (that the balancing approach was wrong) was dicta, and that under Marks the June Medical dissents (which also took issue with the balancing approach) don't count.)
The court said that because the balancing approach under Whole Women's Health was still the law, Indiana's bypass procedure still violated it.
Judge Kane dissented, arguing that under Marks Chief Justice Roberts's opinion in June Medical aligned with the plurality on a "substantial obstacle" test (without balancing, and not merely on stare decisis), and that Indiana's bypass procedure did not violate that "substantial obstacle" test.
Monday, March 15, 2021
The Supreme Court ruled last week that a plaintiff's request for nominal damages is sufficient to satisfy standing requirements and keep the case moving forward. The ruling is a significant win for the plaintiffs in the case, and for civil-rights plaintiffs generally; but it says nothing on the merits of the plaintiffs' claim. Instead, the Court remanded the case for further proceedings.
The case, Uzuegbunam v. Presczewski, arose when a couple of students at Georgia Gwinnett College tried to engage fellow students and distribute religious literature in the school's free-speech zone. Campus officers stopped them, however, citing campus policy that prohibits speech that "disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s)." The plaintiffs sued College officials for injunctive relief and nominal damages. (Civil-rights plaintiffs often request nominal damages, $1.00, when their harm can't be quantified.) Rather than defending the policy on the merits, the College changed it, and moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the students' claim for injunctive relief was now moot, and that the students lacked standing based on their sole remaining claim for nominal damages.
The Court disagreed. Justice Thomas wrote for the 8-1 Court that a plaintiff continues to have standing to sue even when the plaintiff seeks only nominal damages. Justice Thomas said that courts at common law recognized suits for nominal damages, and that the common law did not require a plaintiff to seek compensatory damages in order to claim nominal damages.
Chief Justice Roberts was the lone dissenter. He argued that the plaintiffs lacked standing because "an award of nominal damages does not alleviate the harms suffered by a plaintiff, and is not intended to." More, "If nominal damages can preserve a live controversy, then federal courts will be required to give advisory opinions whenever a plaintiff tacks on a request for a dollar."
The case now goes back to the district court for further consideration. The Court said that one plaintiff--the one who actually spoke--stated a cognizable injury that could be redressed with nominal damages. If that plaintiff meets other all other requirements, his case will go to the merits. But the Court instructed the district court to consider whether the other plaintiff--the one who didn't speak, and only alleged that he was deterred from speaking--suffered a constitutional violation.
Wednesday, January 13, 2021
Here's a short Q&A on some of the questions surrounding congressional efforts to impeach and disqualify President Trump. (I previously posted a primer on constitutional issues related to last week's insurgency.)
Can the House impeach President Trump again?
Yes. Recall that the House impeached President Trump just last year--for abusing power by pressuring the Ukrainian president to dig up dirt on Joe Biden to boost Trump's chances of reelection, and for obstructing the House investigation into the matter. Still, there's nothing prohibiting the House from impeaching President Trump again. (The House has only impeached two other presidents in our history, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. It only impeached them once. But nothing prohibits a second impeachment.)
What happens if the House impeaches?
Alone, nothing. Remember that impeachment is a two-step process: impeachment in the House, and conviction in the Senate. Impeachment in the House requires a bare majority; conviction in the Senate requires a 2/3 vote. "Impeachment" requires both actions. So a House impeachment alone does nothing . . . except record for history that the House voted that the president committed impeachable offenses. Removal from office and disqualification from future office (see below) require the action of both chambers.
What happens if both chambers act?
Two things could happen. First, Congress (again, upon impeachment by the House and conviction in the Senate) could remove the president from office. That only happens, of course, if the president is still in office. So removal would only follow if Congress acted before President Trump's term ends.
Second, Congress can disqualify the president from holding office in the future. Under past congressional practice, this takes a bare majority in both chambers (and not the 2/3 super-majority in the Senate that's required for removal). (The Constitution itself isn't clear on the vote required for disqualification. But when the Constitution isn't clear, and there's no judicial precedent, we often look to past practice to discern the meaning. Past practice on disqualification says that Congress can disqualify with a bare majority vote in both houses.)
Finally, if both chambers act, Congress sets a precedent that behavior like President Trump's is impeachable, and cause for removal and disqualification. Because of the important role that history and practice play in our constitutional tradition, this kind of precedent would be significant, and could influence the future practices of both the President and Congress.
Can Congress impeach the President after his term ends?
Probably yes. The Constitution doesn't explicitly answer this question. But the House has twice impeached officials after they left office--once in 1797 (a Senator, after he was expelled), and once in 1876 (the Secretary of War, after he left office). These precedents are a good indication that Congress could impeach President Trump after he leaves office. (Again: past practice is a good indicator of meaning when the text is silent or ambiguous, and when there's no judicial precedent.) Moreover, as a practical matter, it only makes sense that Congress could impeach an officer after the officer leaves office. Otherwise, an officer could escape removal by resigning, or committing an impeachable offense near the end of the officer's term; and the officer could entirely escape disqualification (because a vote on disqualification often occurs only after an officer leaves office).
On the other hand, some argue that Congress can only impeach a sitting officer, in short, because only a sitting officer can be removed from office.
Can President Trump pardon himself out of impeachment?
No. The pardon power does not extend to impeachments.
Moreover, President Trump probably cannot pardon himself. (The Constitution doesn't say, and there's some disagreement on this. But the Justice Department has long held the view that the president cannot pardon him- or herself, based on the background constitutional principle that no person should be a judge in their own case.)
Can President Trump sue to stop or undo an impeachment?
No. The Supreme Court has ruled that impeachments are "non-justiciable." It said that the impeachment power belongs exclusively to Congress, and that the courts lack authority to second-guess congressional judgments about impeachment and its processes.
Can Congress disqualify President Trump from future office in some other way?
Yes. The 14th Amendment, Sections 3, says that any person who "engaged in insurrection or rebellion" is disqualified from holding federal and state offices, including the presidency. This would require a bare majority vote in both houses, and Congress could disqualify President Trump under the 14th Amendment after he leaves office. (Note that the current House articles of impeachment reference 14th Amendment disqualification.)
Vice President Mike Pence wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi late yesterday declining to invoke the 25th Amendment against President Trump, writing that he does "not believe that such a course of action is in the best interest of our Nation or consistent with our Constitution."
As to why invocation of the 25th Amendment was not "consistent with our Constitution," Pence wrote,
As you know full well, the 25th Amendment was designed to address Presidential incapacity or disability. . . . Under our Constitution, the 25th Amendment is not a means of punishment or usurpation. Invoking the 25th Amendment in such a manner would set a terrible precedent.
He went on to argue that it'd be a bad idea, too, writing that "now is the time for us to come together, now is the time to heal."
For more on the 25th Amendment, check out this Congressional Research Service report.
Monday, January 11, 2021
In orders this morning and last Thursday, the Supreme Court denied requests for expedited and interim relief in President Trump's challenges to state election processes and in Representative Louie Gohmert's lawsuit, respectively.
The rulings functionally close any chance that the Supreme Court will hear any additional challenges to the 2020 election.
Friday, January 8, 2021
Here's a short Q&A on some of the more common constitutional questions related to Wednesday's insurgency:
The Twenty-Fifth Amendment
What is it?
Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment provides a four-step process for determining when a President "is unable to discharge the powers and duties of . . . office . . . ." Section 4 comes into play when a sitting President cannot or will not determine for him- or herself that he or she is so unable. (Section 3 provides the process for a President to make this determination for him- or herself, e.g., to temporarily designate him- or herself as unable to discharge the duties when he or she goes in for a medical procedure that may render the President temporarily unable to do the job.) If successful, a Section 4 process would make the Vice President the "Acting President."
How does it work?
Section 4 has four steps:
Step 1: The VP and a majority of the principal officers of the executive departments (the cabinet) send a written declaration of inability to the President Pro Tem of the Senate and the Speaker of the House. (There are 15 executive departments, so a majority is 8. Section 4 alternatively allows "such other body as Congress may by law provide" to serve this role. But there's currently no "such other body.") When this happens, the VP automatically becomes Acting President and assumes the powers of the presidency.
Step 2: The President may then send a letter to these congressional leaders stating that he or she has no disability--in other words, contesting the judgment of the VP and the cabinet. Note that the President isn't required to do this. If the President doesn't do it, the VP continues as Acting President. There's no time limit for the President to submit this transmission.
Step 3: The VP and a majority of the principal officers of the executive departments can send another transmission to the congressional leaders, but must do so within four days of the President's transmission. If so, then the VP remains Acting President. (There is some disagreement about who would have the powers of the presidency during the period between the President's transmission and the VP/cabinet's re-submission. There is good textual and historical evidence that the VP would remain Acting President during this period.)
Step 4: Congress shall assemble within 48 hours to decide the issue; it must make a decision within 21 days (of receipt of the last transmission (in Step 3), or, if not in session, after it's required to assemble). If Congress votes by 2/3 in each chamber that the President is unable to discharge the duties of office, then the VP remains Acting President. "[O]therwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office."
What does it mean for President Trump?
If the VP and cabinet activate Section 4, VP Pence is likely to become the Acting President for the rest of President Trump's term, no matter what President Trump does. That's because the VP would become Acting President after Step 1, and because the VP and the cabinet would almost certainly complete Step 3 (having already committed to Step 1). At that point, Congress has a full 21 days--days in which the VP would be Acting President--which would carry us beyond January 20, the date of President-Elect Biden's inauguration. (Congress could easily drag its feet and avoid a vote until after January 20.)
Here's a fantastic Congressional Research Service report on the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.
What is it?
Impeachment is a two-step process by which Congress can remove a sitting President from office and ban the President from holding future office. According to the Congressional Research Service, "[i]t appears that federal officials who have resigned have still been thought to be susceptible to impeachment and a ban on holding future office." A pardon doesn't work on impeachment. An impeached individual could also be subject to criminal liability.
How does it work?
Impeachment is a two-step process:
Step 1: The House votes to impeach. This requires only a bare majority.
Step 2: The Senate then holds a trial and votes to convict. Removal from office requires a 2/3 vote. But under Senate practice, a bare majority could vote to prevent the President from holding future office.
What does it mean for President Trump?
Congress could remove President Trump from office, or ban him from holding office in the future, or both. Congress could ban President Trump from holding future office, even if he resigns from office first. Congress could dispense with its ordinary impeachment procedures (which take a longer time) and move very quickly, even before January 20. That's because impeachment proceedings are non-justiciable (the courts won't hear challenges to them), and President Trump therefore couldn't challenge an impeachment process in court.
Here's an excellent Congressional Research Service Report on impeachment.
President Trump is free to resign from office at any time. There are no restrictions on this. If he resigns, under Section 1 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, "the Vice President shall become President."
What is it?
The President has the power to pardon individuals for federal (but not state) crimes. But the President can pardon for crimes arising from past behavior only; the President cannot pardon for future acts. (But by pardoning for past behavior, the President can insulate individuals from future indictments or convictions.) The pardon power is probably not reviewable in the courts, although an improper exercise of the pardon power could be an impeachable offense.
The Justice Department has long held that a President cannot pardon him- or herself. (The OLC memo is here.) But we've never faced that situation, and we have no court rulings.
There's a question as to whether the President can issue a blanket pardon, or whether the President must identify the specific criminal behavior. This has never been tested.
What does it mean for President Trump?
President Trump cannot pardon himself. If he tries--and attempts to use his self-pardon as a defense in a future federal prosecution--he will likely fail. But President Trump could resign from office, or delegate authority to the VP, and VP Pence (as Acting President) could pardon him. (See the discussion on the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, above.)
VP Pence could not pardon President Trump for state crimes. The pardon power only works for federal offenses.
What is it?
The President enjoys certain immunities from the law by virtue of the President's unique position in our constitutional system. For example, the President is absolutely immune from civil liability for official actions. But the President is not immune from civil lawsuits for behavior prior to coming to office.
The Justice Department has long held that a sitting President is immune from federal criminal prosecution while in office. This is not uncontroversial, however, and it's never been tested. At the same time, DOJ has also long held that a President is not immune from federal criminal prosecution after the President leaves office. (Here's the most recent DOJ/OLC memo on this.)
The Supreme Court ruled just this past summer that a sitting President is not absolutely immune from all state criminal processes. President Trump is not immune from state criminal investigations and more, and he will enjoy no immunity from state criminal indictments or convictions when he leaves office.
What does it mean for President Trump?
President Trump is subject to federal and state criminal indictment and conviction for behavior while in office when he leaves office, and maybe sooner. Traditionally, the DOJ has not pursued criminal charges against a former President. But the Constitution does not forbid this.
A pardon, of course, would insulate President Trump from future federal criminal prosecution.
Friday, January 1, 2021
Judge Jeremy D. Kernodle (E.D. Tx.) dismissed the lawsuit headed by Representative Louie Gohmert against Vice President Mike Pence to throw the 2020 presidential election.
The ruling in the frivolous case was not unexpected.
The case arose when Gohmert and self-appointed Trump electors from Arizona sued VP Pence, arguing that the Electoral Count Act violates the Electors Clause and the Twelfth Amendment, and that Pence has authority to determine which slate of electors to accept when he presides over the congressional count of electoral votes on January 6. The, er, novel argument turns on the plaintiffs', um, creative reading of the Electors Clause, the Twelfth Amendment, and the Electoral Count Act.
Start with the Electors Clause. It says that "[e]ach State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . . ."
Next, the Twelfth Amendment. It says that each state's electors meet in their respective states and vote for President and VP. The electors then transmit their votes to the President of the Senate, the VP. "The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted." The candidate winning the majority of electoral votes wins. But if no candidate gets a majority, the House selects the President, with each state delegation receiving one vote.
Finally, the Electoral Count Act. It says that Congress must count the votes in a joint session on January 6, with the VP presiding. It says that the executive in each state shall certify the electors to the Archivist of the United States, who then transmits the certificates to Congress. It says that a state's determination of their electors is "conclusive" if the state resolved all disputes over the election pursuant to state law at least 6 days before the electors meet. (This is called the "safe harbor" date.) Under the Act, if at least one Member of the House of Representatives and one Senator objects to a state's elector votes, the House and Senate meet in separate sessions and vote on the objection--by members, not state delegations.
Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin all certified their electors to President-Elect Biden and VP-Elect Harris, pursuant to state law and the Electoral Count Act. The governors certified the electors to the Archivist.
But then Trump electors in those states met and, without any legal authority, self-certified their votes to President Trump and VP Pence.
The plaintiffs contend that the self-appointed Trump electors created a competing slate of electors in each of these states. (They did not. The "Trump electors" named themselves electors without any legal authority and contrary to state law in each state.) They argue that "provisions . . . of the Electoral Count Act are unconstitutional insofar as they establish procedures for determining which of two or more competing slates of Presidential Electors for a given State are to be counted in the Electoral College, or how objections to a proffered slate are adjudicated, that violate the Twelfth Amendment."
In particular, they argue that the states appointed Biden electors in violation of the Electors Clause, because the state governors and secretaries of state certified those electors, even though the Electors Clause specifies that this is a function for the legislature. (In fact, the legislatures in each of those states already determined the manner of appointing electors by enacting state law that awards electors to the majority winner of the popular vote in those states.)
Moreover, they argue that the dispute-resolution procedure in the Electoral Count Act "limits or eliminates [the VP's] exclusive authority and sole discretion under the Twelfth Amendment to determine which slates of electors for a State, or neither, may be counted." (In fact, the Twelfth Amendment does not give this authority to the VP. The VP's role is ceremonial, simply to read and count the certified results from each state.)
Finally, they argue that the dispute-resolution procedure in the Electoral Count Act "replaces the Twelfth Amendment's dispute resolution procedure--under which the House of Representatives has sole authority to choose the President." (In fact, the Twelfth Amendment dispute resolution procedure only applies when no candidate won a majority of electoral votes. The Electoral Count Act procedure applies when a member of both Houses objects to a state's slate of electors. Those are different dispute resolution processes, to be sure, but for very different kinds of dispute.)
The plaintiffs asked the court to hold that the VP has "exclusive authority and sole discretion in determining which electoral votes to count for a given State."
But the court ruled that the plaintiffs lacked standing. It said that Gohmert lacked standing, because he asserted only an institutional harm (to the House), and not a personal harm. "Congressman Gohmert's alleged injury is 'a type of institutional injury (the diminution of legislative power), which necessarily damages all Members of Congress.'" It said that the Trump "electors" lacked standing, because any alleged injury that they suffered was not created by VP Pence, the defendant. Moreover, it said that both Gohmert and the Trump "electors" failed to show that their requested relief (an order that VP Pence has exclusive discretion to determine which electoral votes to count) would redress their injuries, because VP Pence might not determine the electoral votes in their favor.
The plaintiffs vowed to appeal. But don't expect this case to go anywhere . . . on standing, or on the merits.
Wednesday, December 30, 2020
The D.C. Circuit ruled this week that members of a House committee have standing to sue to enforce their statutory right to obtain information from executive agencies, in this case the General Services Administration.
The ruling means that the plaintiff-House members can pursue their claim to get the information, but it does not say that they'll win. In any event, the case is likely to become moot under President Biden, when the administration seems much more likely to comply with the request. (The ruling is likely to embolden minority Republican House members to ask for information from the Biden Administration.)
The case, Maloney v. Murphy, arose when Democratic members of the House Oversight Committee, then in a minority, sought information from the GSA related to the Agency's lease with a Trump corporation for the Old Post Office. The members invoked 5 U.S.C. Sec. 2954, which authorizes seven members of the House Oversight Committee or five members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to request and obtain information from any executive agency. The statute functionally allows a minority group of lawmakers on those committees to obtain information from an executive agency, even if the full committee does not seek that same information.
GSA balked, and the members sued. The district court granted the GSA's motion to dismiss for lack of standing, but the D.C. Circuit reversed.
The court said that the plaintiffs suffered a cognizable informational injury--that the GSA deprived them of information to which they were entitled, and that their lawsuit would redress that injury.
The court went on to say that the injury was "personal," and not "institutional," and therefore the individual lawmakers had standing. (A personal injury is a direct harm to a person, or in this case a lawmaker; the harmed individual, even if a lawmaker, has standing to sue. An institutional injury, in contract, is a generalized harm to the institution, in this case the Committee; the Committee would have standing, but not an individual lawmaker.) The court explained:
The Requestors do not assert an injury to institutional powers of functions that "damages all Members of Congress and both Houses of Congress equally." The injury they claim--the denial of information to which they as individual legislators are statutorily entitled--befell them and only them. Section 2954 vested them specifically and particularly with the right to obtain information. The 34 other members of the Committee who never sought the information suffered no deprivation when it was withheld. Neither did the nearly 400 other Members of the House who were not on the Committee suffer any informational injury. Nor was the House (or Senate) itself harmed because the statutory right does not belong to those institutions.
Judge Ginsburg dissented:
The Plaintiff-Members here allege harm to the House rather than to themselves personally. Their theory of injury is that the General Services Administration (GSA), by refusing their request for certain documents, hindered their efforts to oversee the Executive and potentially to pass remedial legislation. The Complaint is clear and consistent on this point: The Plaintiff-Members were harmed through the "impedance of the oversight and legislative responsibilities that have been delegated to them by Congress . . . ."