Sunday, October 4, 2020
Supreme Court to Hear First Amendment Challenge to Political Balancing Requirements for State Courts
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow, the opening day of October Term 2020, in Carney v. Adams. The case tests whether Delaware's "political balancing" requirements for its courts violate the First Amendment. A ruling on the merits could have implications for a variety of state and federal commissions that have similar balancing requirements. But first the Court'll need to address the plaintiff's standing . . . .
Here's my Preview of the case, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
Case at a Glance
Delaware attorney James Adams, a registered Independent, considered applying for a judicial position on the state courts. Despite his interest, however, Adams did not apply, because he believed that, as an Independent, he would not qualify. Adams pointed to a state constitutional provision that capped the number of judges from a political party to no more than a bare majority on the courts (the “bare-majority” requirement) and that, for some courts, required that the other judges come from the other major political party (the “major-party” requirement). Instead of applying for judicial vacancies on these courts, Adams sued, arguing that the provision violated the First Amendment.
According to the Supreme Court, the First Amendment permits the government to use a person’s political affiliation as a qualification for “policymaking” positions, but generally not for lower-level government jobs. This case tests how that principle applies to Delaware’s political balancing provision for judges. But before we get to the merits, the case raises a significant question whether Adams even has standing to sue.
- Does Adams have standing to sue, given that he declined to apply for judicial vacancies, and given that he would have qualified for vacancies on two of Delaware’s courts?
- Does the First Amendment prohibit a state from specifying and defining the composition of its courts by reference to the judges’ political parties?
- Is the provision of Delaware’s constitution that caps the judges from one political party on three of the state’s courts severable from the provision that requires that all judges on those courts are members of a major political party?
Delaware’s “Bare Majority” and “Major Party” Political Balancing Requirements
In 1897, delegates to the Delaware constitutional convention sought to reduce the influence of politics on the state’s judiciary. In order to achieve this goal, delegates recommended a political balancing requirement for the state’s principal courts. Under the requirement, these courts could not have more than a single-judge majority from any one political party. The state adopted the bare-majority proposal, and Delaware has had some form of a bare-majority requirement for its principal courts ever since.
In 1951, the state modified the political balancing requirements to exclude third party and unaffiliated voters from applying to serve as judges on the Supreme Court, the Superior Court, and the Chancery Court, the so-called “business courts.” The change retained the existing bare-majority requirement, but it added a major-party requirement that limited service on these courts only to members of a major political party, Republican or Democrat. The major-party requirement helped to ensure that a governor could not side-step the bare-majority requirement by appointing a nominal third-party or independent judge to a seat reserved for the other side. The change stuck through several amendment processes, including in 2005.
Today, Article IV, Section 3, of the Delaware Constitution specifies that these three courts shall include no more than a single-judge majority from one major political party, and that all other judges shall be from the other major political party. (If one of these courts has an even number of judges, the provision specifies that the judges on that court shall be equally divided, Republican and Democrat.)
The same section also specifies that the Family Court and the Court of Common Pleas shall include no more than a single-judge majority of the same political party. (If one of these courts has an even number of judges, the provision specifies that no more than one-half of the judges shall be of the same political party.) But in contrast to the provision for the business courts, the provision for these two courts does not include a major-party requirement. As a result, members of non-major political parties, including independents, may serve on these two courts, so long as these courts satisfy their bare-majority requirement.
Delaware’s Judicial Nominations
Since 1978, Delaware governors have relied on recommendations from a judicial nominating commission to identify candidates to appoint to judicial vacancies. Under this practice, the commission, which is politically balanced and comprised of both lawyers and non-lawyers, recommends three candidates for each judicial vacancy. The governor then selects one of the three nominees for appointment. If the governor is not satisfied with the commission’s recommendations, the commission may generate another list of recommendations.
When a judicial position becomes available, the commission provides public notice of the position, the salary, and the job requirements, including the party membership, in order to comply with the bare-majority and major-party requirements, discussed above.
James Adams’s Non-Application for a Judicial Position
In December 2015, Delaware attorney James Adams retired and went on “emeritus” status with the Delaware state bar. Sometime in late 2016 or early 2017, Adams decided to explore judicial vacancies. He reactivated his full state bar membership and changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Independent. Adams said that he would have considered and applied for any available positions on any of the state’s courts. (Adams said he changed his party affiliation because he grew disenchanted with the Delaware Democratic Party and considered himself “more of a Bernie [Sanders] independent.” The state, in contrast, suggests that he changed his party only to bring this suit. Adams also claims that he declined to apply for judicial vacancies in the past, because he would not have qualified as a Democrat. The state disputes this and says that he would have qualified for at least ten judgeships.)
Rather than applying for any vacancies, however, Adams brought this suit. He claimed that the political balancing requirements rendered him ineligible for available vacancies based on his Independent political status, and argued that the requirements violated the First Amendment. The district court agreed and struck both the bare-majority requirement and the major-party requirement as they applied to all five courts.
The Third Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part. The court ruled that Adams lacked standing to challenge the bare-majority requirements for the Family Court and the Court of Common Pleas, because the bare-majority requirements did not bar his appointment as an Independent to those courts. The court also accepted that Adams lacked standing to challenge the bare-majority requirement for the business courts for the same reason. On the merits, the court held that the major-party requirement for the business courts violated the First Amendment. It ruled that the bare-majority requirement failed, too, because (notwithstanding Adams’s lack of standing to challenge it) the bare-majority requirement was not severable from the major-party requirement. This appeal followed.
There are three issues in this case. Let’s take them one at a time.
In order to sue in federal court, plaintiffs must establish that they have suffered, or imminently will suffer, a concrete and particularized injury that was caused by the challenged law. Here, the state argues that Adams failed to establish a sufficient injury to challenge the political balancing requirements. The state says that the bare-majority requirement could not possibly injure Adams, because he does not belong to either political party. Moreover, the state contends that Adams failed to establish that he suffered past injuries based on the bare-majority requirement, because he would have qualified “for at least ten judgeships.” The state asserts that Adams failed to establish that he will suffer future harms based on the major-party requirement, because he cannot say with certainty that the major-party requirement will disqualify him from future consideration. Finally, the state notes that Adam declined to apply for any positions as an Independent, and that any harm he suffered is therefore “self-inflicted” and non-cognizable.
Adams counters that he only has to allege that the political balancing requirements chilled his exercise of his First Amendment right to affiliate (or not) with a political party (and not that the state actually denied his application). He says he easily meets this standard, because he alleged that he would have applied for judicial vacancies but for the balancing requirements’ political discrimination. He claims that the requirements force him “to choose between the right to seek a judgeship and violating his political conscience by re-registering as a Democrat or a Republican in order to be considered.” And he contends that a decision striking the political balancing requirements would allow him to submit an application as an Independent and have it “accepted and considered on its own merit.”
The Political Balancing Requirements
The state argues that it may consider party affiliation of state judges consistent with the First Amendment. It contends that under Supreme Court precedent, the First Amendment only limits a state from considering political affiliation for “low-level public employees,” not for “policymaking” jobs. The state asserts that the “ultimate inquiry” is “whether the hiring authority can demonstrate that party affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the effective performance of the public office involved.” Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 508 (1980).
The state says that its use of party affiliation for judges easily meets these tests. It contends that judges occupy “policymaking” positions, because, among other things, they “develop the common law.” And it claims that party affiliation is “an appropriate requirement” for the job, “[b]ecause party affiliation is a proxy for how would-be judges might understand their role,” and because it helps to ensure bipartisan decisionmaking on the bench. The state asserts that the Third Circuit adopted an unduly narrow definition of “policymaking”—one that does not square with Supreme Court precedent.
Finally, the state argues that even if its political balancing requirements are subject to heightened First Amendment scrutiny (because judgeships are not “policymaking” positions), they pass muster. The state says that they are narrowly tailored to ensure a politically balanced judiciary, and that this, in turn, serves its compelling interest of preserving “public confidence in judicial integrity.”
Adams counters that the balancing requirements violate the First Amendment, because “[p]olitical affiliation is not only not necessary for the work of a judge, it also is inconsistent with the role of a judge.” Adams claims that judges only make “policy” insofar as they rule on the immediate cases before them, and so are not policymakers under Supreme Court precedent. Moreover, he says that judges are supposed to render their decisions without consideration of politics, and so their political affiliation is not “an appropriate requirement” for their office. In short, he contends that the state’s balancing requirements run exactly against the state’s own interests in a politically neutral judiciary.
The state argues that the bare-majority requirement is severable from the major-party requirement, and that the Court can therefore strike the major-party requirement (if it must) without also striking the bare-majority requirement. As an initial matter, the state asserts again that Adams lacks standing to challenge the bare-majority provision, and argues that he cannot use its non-severability from the major-party requirement to create standing to challenge it. Such a rule, the state contends, “would allow parties to obtain sweeping relief against whole statutory schemes even if injured by only part of them.” Moreover, the state claims that the bare-majority requirement can stand alone, independent of the major-party requirement, as it stood for 54 years before the state adopted the major-party requirement, and as it currently stands for the state’s Family Court and Court of Common Pleas. According to the state, “[t]here is simply no evidence that the Delaware Constitution’s framers would have preferred no political balance provisions at all to a system with just the bare majority provision.”
Adams counters that the state failed to raise the severability argument before the lower courts, and so waived it. But if the Court rules on severability, Adams argues that the major-party requirement is not severable from the bare-majority requirement, because the two provisions “are textually intertwined” and necessarily work together. He says that the history of the bare-majority requirement reveals that “the Legislature had only Democrats and Republicans in mind.” Moreover, he claims that the major-party requirement is necessary for the bare-majority requirement to achieve its goals. He contends that the major-party requirement “has no independent justification for its existence,” and so the two are not severable. According to Adams, this means that when the Court strikes the major-party requirement, it must also strike the bare-majority requirement.
First and foremost, there is a circuit split on an issue central to the merits question in this case, whether judges are “policymakers.” The Third Circuit said no, but the Second, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits (and, according to the state, “every other court to address the issue”) has said yes. Under Court precedent, if judges are “policymakers,” then the state can use their political affiliation as a qualification without violating the First Amendment. If they are not, then the state must show that its use of political affiliation is necessary to achieve a compelling government interest. This is a high standard, but one that the state argues, in the alternative, that it can satisfy. If the Court reaches the central merits question in this case, it may resolve the circuit split and determine whether judges are “policymakers” that fall under this exception to the First Amendment.
I say “may,” because it’s not entirely obvious that the Court’s precedents establishing the “policymakers” standard apply here. Those precedents deal more directly with the problem of political patronage, that is, when the government doles out jobs to politically friendly allies. But Delaware’s stated interest is very different here, to reduce the influence of politics in the judiciary by mandating a non-partisan, or, in this case, a bi-partisan, process. According to the State and Local Government Associations, as amicus in support of the state, merely applying the Court’s patronage precedents could threaten similar state and local government balancing requirements far beyond the judiciary. According to amicus, this could affect state and local governments’ efforts to reduce the influence of politics in a variety of policy areas.
But all that’s only if the Court reaches the central merits question, whether Delaware’s balancing provision violates the First Amendment. Before the Court can address this issue, it must determine that Adams has standing to sue. Given that Adams declined to apply for several positions for which he apparently qualified (either as a Democrat, in the past, or as an Independent, in the present and future), it seems likely that the Court may simply dismiss the case for lack of standing, vacate the Third Circuit’s ruling, and wait for a more appropriate case to address the hard question of whether Delaware’s political balancing provision violates the First Amendment.
Thursday, October 1, 2020
Check out this in-depth story on the history of claims of voter fraud, and how those claims affect the right to vote. From the NYT.
Wednesday, September 30, 2020
The Seventh Circuit flatly rejected an appeal by the Wisconsin legislature and the state and national Republican Party of a lower court's order that the state extend voting deadlines in light of Covid-19. The ruling leaves the extended deadlines in place and ends the case, unless the intervenors can persuade the full Seventh Circuit or the Supreme Court to step in.
The case arose when the Democratic National Committee and others sued the state, arguing that its statutory voting deadlines violated the right to vote. The district court agreed, and ordered extended deadlines.
State executive officials declined to appeal. But the RNC, state Republicans, and the state legislature moved to intervene to defend the state's statutory deadlines (and to oppose the district court's order extending them), and brought this appeal.
The Seventh Circuit's ruling says that these parties don't have standing to appeal. The court said that the state and national Republican parties don't have standing, because neither group contended that the district court's ruling would affect their members, and because neither group suffered an injury itself.
Legislative standing was a little different. The court acknowledged that a legislature can litigate in federal court when it seeks to vindicate a legislative interest. But here the court said there was none. "All the legislators' votes were counted; all of the statutes they passed appear in the state's code."
The legislature argued that state law authorized it to defend against challenges to state statutes. But the court observed that the state supreme court previously ruled that this provision violated the state constitution, which "commits to the executive branch of government [and not the legislative branch] the protection of the state's interest in litigation."
The court gave the putative appellants a week to show cause why the court shouldn't dismiss the case.
Looking for a plain-English explainer on how a Justice Amy Coney Barrett could affect the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, in a case scheduled for oral argument on November 10? Here you go:
Saturday, September 26, 2020
Here's SCOTUSblog's resource page:
Here's the Seventh Circuit opinions website, which allows you to search opinions by author:
Judge Lucy H. Koh (N.D. Cal.) ruled this week that the Trump Administration's late summer plan to rush census data collection likely violated the Administrative Procedure Act. The ruling halts the implementation of the plan.
The ruling is a blow to the Trump Administration and its latest effort to alter or manipulate census data.
The case arose when the Census Bureau first suspended census operations and then pushed back internal deadlines for census data collection and analysis because of collection problems related to COVID-19. (For one, the Bureau couldn't keep census data doorknockers on the payroll: they kept quitting out of fear of contracting COVID.) The Bureau also announced that it wouldn't be able to meet statutory deadlines for reporting census data. The Bureau said that under its regular deadlines the census would be incomplete and inaccurate.
But then in early August, the Bureau abruptly reversed course and issued the "Replan." The Replan "accelerate[d] the completion of data collection and apportionment counts by our statutory deadline of December 31, 2020 . . . ."
The problem was that the Bureau itself--and the Bureau's unanimous Scientific Advisory Committee, and the GAO, and the Commerce Department's Inspector General--concluded that the Replan increased the risks of an incomplete and inaccurate 2020 census.
Plaintiff organizations and local jurisdictions sued, arguing that the Replan violated the APA and the Enumeration Clause and sought to halt its implementation. The court ruled that the case was justiciable, that the plaintiffs had standing, and that the Replan likely violated the APA. (It did not rule on the Enumeration Clause, because it didn't have to. The APA ruling was enough to say that it likely violated the law.) As to the APA claim, the court wrote:
[T]he Court agreed that Plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their APA arbitrary and capricious claim for five reasons: (1) Defendants failed to consider important aspects of the problem, including their constitutional and statutory obligations to produce an accurate census; (2) Defendants offered an explanation that runs counter to the evidence before them; (3) Defendants failed to consider alternatives; (4) Defendants failed to articulate a satisfactory explanation for the Replan; and (5) Defendants failed to consider reliance interests.
Friday, September 25, 2020
The D.C. Circuit ruled today that the House of Representatives has standing to challenge President Trump's reprogramming of federal funds to build a border wall.
The ruling is a setback for the Trump Administration and its efforts to build the wall (or at least more of it than Congress authorized through federal funding). But the ruling only says that the House has standing--not that it wins. The case now goes back to the district court for further proceedings, unless the administration seeks en banc or Supreme Court review.
The court said that the House has standing to challenge the reprogramming under the Appropriations Clause, but not under the Administrative Procedure Act. That shouldn't matter much to the future of the case, though: the lower court will still rule whether the Trump administration violated the law (the Constitution) in reprogramming funds.
Aside from allowing this case to move forward, the ruling is also significant because it says that a single house of Congress has standing to challenge executive action in violation of the Appropriations Clause. Appropriations, of course, require both houses of Congress. But the court said that a single house nevertheless suffered sufficient injury to satisfy Article III standing requirements when the executive branch reprograms federal funds in alleged violation of the Appropriations Clause. Here's what the court wrote on that point:
More specifically, by spending funds that the House refused to allow, the Executive Branch has defied an express constitutional prohibition that protects each congressional chamber's unilateral authority to prevent expenditures. It is therefore "an institutional plaintiff asserting an institutional injury" that is both concrete and particularized, belonging to the House and the House alone.
To put it simply, the Appropriations Clause requires two keys to unlock the Treasury, and the House holds one of those keys. The Executive Branch has, in a word, snatched the House's key out of its hands. That is the injury over which the House is suing.
. . .
[U]nder the defendants' standing paradigm [requiring Congress to sue, not just a single house], the Executive Branch can freely spend Treasury funds as it wishes unless and until a veto-proof majority of both houses of Congress forbids it. Even that might not be enough: Under defendants' standing theory, if the Executive Branch ignored that congressional override, the House would remain just as disabled to sue to protect its own institutional interests. That turns the constitutional order upside down.
Thursday, July 9, 2020
Court Says Congress Can Subpoena Trump Financial Records, but Must Account for Separation of Powers Concerns
The Supreme Court ruled today that while Congress has authority to issue subpoenas for the President's personal financial records, courts that judge those subpoenas must take more careful account of the separation-of-powers considerations at play.
The ruling in Trump v. Mazars vacates the lower courts' rulings and remands the case for reconsideration in light of the balancing test that the Court sets out.
The ruling means that the congressional committees won't get President Trump's financial records yet, and maybe never. It all depends on whether Congress can meet the test set out in the Court's opinion. Either way, it almost certainly won't happen before the 2020 election.
The ruling, like Vance, is a short-term victory for President Trump, in that his records probably won't come out soon. But on the other hand, it's a decisive long-term defeat for the presidency (and victory for Congress), as the Court affirmed Congress's power to subpoena the President's personal records, even with a somewhat higher-than-normal requirement.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the Court, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. Justice Thomas dissented, and Justice Alito dissented. (If you're keeping count, that's the same line-up as in Vance.)
The Court first rejected the President's sweeping claim that tried to shoe-horn executive privilege into the case: "We decline to transplant that protection root and branch to cases involving nonprivileged, private information, which by definition does not implicate sensitive Executive Branch deliberations."
The Court then acknowledged that Congress has very broad, but still defined, powers of investigation and subpoena, even against the President, and even for the President's personal papers. But the Court said that because these subpoenas sought personal information of the President (as the single head of the Executive Branch), they raised especial separation-of-powers concerns that the lower courts failed sufficiently to account for:
The House's approach fails to take adequate account of the significant separation of powers issues raised by congressional subpoenas for the President's information. . . .
Without limits on its subpoena powers, Congress could "exert an imperious controul" over the Executive Branch and aggrandize itself at the President's expense, just as the Framers feared.
The Court set out a non-exhaustive list of things that courts should look for in judging congressional subpoenas for a President's personal information:
First, courts should carefully assess whether the asserted legislative purpose warrants the significant step of involving the President and his papers. Congress may not rely on the President's information if other sources could reasonably provide Congress the information it needs in light of its particular legislative objective. . . .
Second, to narrow the scope of possible conflict between the branches, courts should insist on a subpoena no broader than reasonably necessary to support Congress's legislative objective. . . .
Third, courts should be attentive to the nature of the evidence offered by Congress to establish that a subpoena advances a valid legislative purpose. The more detailed and substantial the evidence of Congress's legislative purpose, the better. . . .
Fourth, courts should be careful to assess the burdens imposed on the President by a subpoena. . . .
Other considerations may be pertinent as well; one case every two centuries does not afford enough experience for an exhaustive list.
The Court vacated the lower courts' opinions and remanded for reconsideration under these factors.
Justice Thomas argued that "Congress has no power to issue a legislative subpoena for private, nonofficial documents--whether they belong to the President or not," unless Congress is investigating an impeachment.
Justice Alito dissented, too, arguing that the bar for Congress should be set higher than the Court's setting, and that "the considerations outlined by the Court can[not] be properly satisfied [on remand] unless the House is required to show more than it has put forward to date."
The Supreme Court ruled today that a state grand jury is not categorically prohibited from issuing a subpoena for the President's taxes and financial records. But the ruling leaves open the possibility that the President could argue that the subpoena violates state law, or that a particular subpoena, including this one, violates the separation of powers.
Because of that last bit, the ruling means that the grand jury probably won't get its hands on President Trump's taxes anytime soon. That's because the President is almost sure to pitch these arguments in state or federal court, and the litigation will likely take some time. That means that the ruling is likely a short-term win for the President.
But at the same time, the ruling is a dramatic loss for the presidency. That's because the Court unconditionally rejected the President's sweeping and categorical claim of absolute immunity against state criminal processes. President Trump overargued this, as did the DOJ, and the Court reined him in.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Kavanaugh wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment, joined by Justice Gorsuch. Justice Thomas dissented, and Justice Alito dissented.
The Court held that Presidents long lacked immunity from federal criminal subpoenas, going all the way back to the Burr trial. It ruled that there's nothing different about a state criminal subpoena that would categorically immunize the President (as the president argued), or even raise the bar for a presidential subpoena (as DOJ argued). In particular, the Court rejected the President's claims that a state grand jury subpoena could divert the President's attention, stigmatize the President (and undermine his leadership), and harass the President in violation of federalism principles. It similarly rejected DOJ's similar reasons for a higher bar for presidential subpoenas.
The Court nevertheless left open the possibility that the President (like anybody else) could challenge a state grand jury subpoena under state law, like law that bans bad faith subpoenas or those that create an undue burden. It also left open the possibility that the President could challenge a specific subpoena on the basis that a particular subpoena unduly interfered with his duties as President. (The problem in this case was that the President claimed a categorical immunity from state subpoenas.) The President will probably take up these claims now, leading to yet another round of litigation, and probably preventing the grand jury from getting the documents and records anytime soon.
Justice Kavanaugh, joined by Justice Gorsuch, concurred in the judgment but wrote separately to underscore that there may be state law or constitutional problems with this particular subpoena, depending on how the courts balance out the competing interests of the state courts and the President.
Justice Thomas dissented, agreeing with the majority that the President isn't categorically immune from the grand jury's issuance of the subpoena, but that he might be immune from the enforcement of it.
Justice Alito dissented, too, agreeing that the President isn't categorically immune, but arguing for a heightened standard, given the nature of the Presidency and the federalism system.
Wednesday, July 8, 2020
The Supreme Court today upheld the Trump Administration's rules substantially broadening the religious exemption and expanding it to those with a "moral" objection to the Affordable Care Act's contraception guarantee.
The ruling in Little Sisters v. Pennsylvania means that a dramatically expanded group of employers--those with a religious objection or moral objection to contraception--get an automatic free pass on the requirement that employers provide their female employees with health-insurance coverage that includes contraceptives. Covered employers need not file for an self-certified exemption or accommodation; they just have to, well, not provide coverage.
This could mean that between 70,500 and 126,400 women would lose access to contraceptive services under their employer-provided health insurance plans. (This is the Administration's estimate.)
The Court's ruling leaves open another challenge to the rules, however, and the plaintiffs could raise the argument on remand, that is, that the rules are arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act.
Justice Thomas wrote for the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. The Court ruled that the Departments had statutory authority to adopt the rules under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 300gg-13(a)(4), which provides that "with respect to women," group health plans must "at a minimum, provide . . . such additional preventive care and screenings not described in paragraph (1) as provided for in comprehensive guidelines supported by [HRSA]." The Court said that the "as provided for" clause "grants sweeping authority to HRSA to craft a set of standards defining the preventive care that applicable health plans must cover," leaving the HRSA with "virtually unbridled discretion to decide what counts as preventive care and screenings." The Court held that this authority included the power "to identify and create exemptions" like the ones in the challenged rules.
The Court also held that the Departments complied with the procedural requirements in the Administrative Procedure Act in adopting the rules.
The Court expressly declined to say whether RFRA compelled the exemptions in the rules, as the Administration argued. Still, the Court did say that the Departments were within their powers to consider RFRA in writing the rules, and even that "[i]t is clear from the face of the statute that the contraceptive mandate is capable of violating RFRA."
Justice Alito concurred in full, joined by Justice Gorsuch. Justice Alito argued that the Court should have resolved the RFRA question in favor of the Administration--that is, that RFRA compelled the rules. According to Justice Alito, this would have meant that the rules were not impermissibly arbitrary and capricious under the APA, and thus foreclosed that argument on remand.
Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Breyer, concurred in the judgment. Justice Kagan argued that HRSA had statutory authority to exempt certain employers from the contraceptive guarantee, but (different than the Court) because the HRSA was entitled to Chevron deference in its interpretation of the ambiguous statutory language. She also argued that the rules could be arbitrary and capricious--an issue for the lower court on remand.
Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justice Sotomayor. Justice Ginsburg pointed to an earlier provision in the Act that specifies that group health plans and health insurance issuers "shall" cover specified services. She argued that this provision mandates who is required to provide specified services--and that it doesn't include any exemptions. (She argued that the section that the Court relied on only went to what services must be provided, not who must provide them. And yet the rules provide exemptions for who must provide services.) She also argued that the rules weren't compelled by the Free Exercise Clause or RFRA.
Monday, July 6, 2020
A unanimous Supreme Court today upheld a state law that punishes "faithless electors." The ruling means that states can continue to impose fines on individuals appointed to vote in the Electoral College who pledge their vote to one candidate, but actually vote for another. In a companion case (in a brief per curiam opinion), the Court held that a state could remove and replace a faithless elector with an elector who would vote for the winner of the state's popular vote.
The case, Chiafalo v. Washington, arose when three Washington electors who pledged to support Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election actually voted for someone else. (They hoped that they could encourage other electors to do the same, and deny Donald Trump the presidency.) The state imposed a $1000 fine for each "faithless elector" for violating their pledge to support the candidate who won the state's popular vote.
The pledge wasn't a problem. The Court in 1952 upheld a pledge requirement, and a state's power to appoint only those electors who would vote for the candidate of the winning political party. But that case, Ray v. Blair, didn't answer the question whether a state could punish a faithless elector.
Today's ruling says yes.
Justice Kagan wrote for the Court. She noted first that the appointment power in Article II, Section 1, authorizes each state to appoint electors "in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct." This power to appoint "includes a power to condition [the] appointment--that is, to say what the elector must do for the appointment to take effect," including requiring the elector to pledge to cast a vote in the Electoral College that reflects the popular vote in the state. Then: "And nothing in the Constitution expressly prohibits States from taking away presidential electors' voting discretion as Washington does." In short, "a law penalizing faithless voting (like a law merely barring that practice) is an exercise of the State's power to impose conditions on the appointment of electors."
The Court also wrote that the practice of punishing a faithless elector is consistent with "long settled and established practice." "Washington's law, penalizing a pledge's breach, is only another in the same vein. It reflects a tradition more than two centuries old. In that practice, electors are not free agents; they are to vote for the candidate whom the State's voters have chosen."
Justice Thomas concurred, joined by Justice Gorsuch. Justice Thomas argued that the question isn't answered by Article II (or anything else in the Constitution), and so gets its answer from the federalism formula in the Tenth Amendment: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Monday, June 29, 2020
The Supreme Court today struck the statutory independence of the Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, even as it declined to rule the entire CFPB unconstitutional. This means that the CFPB stays in place, Director and all, but that the President can terminate the Director at will. (As to the particular case before the Court, which challenged a CFPB enforcement demand, the ruling invalidates the demand. But the CFPB could reissue it and re-commence enforcement, but without protections for the Director.)
More broadly, the ruling in Seila Law v. CFPB says that Congress lacks authority to create an Executive Branch "independent" principal office, unless that office is part of a larger board or commission, and probably without significant executive power.
The ruling is a victory for the Trump Administration, which opposed independence for the CFPB Director. But at the same time, it sharply restricts Congress's power to create an independent principal office within the Executive Branch.
Under the Dodd-Frank Act, the CFPB has authority to implement and enforce a variety of consumer financial protection laws to "ensur[e] that all consumers have access to markets for consumer financial products and services and that markets for consumer financial products and services are fair, transparent, and competitive."
The Director is nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. In creating an independent Director, Congress legislated that the Director would be appointed for five years and can be removed only for "inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office." It's that "independence" that was at stake in the case.
The Court ruled that this independence violated the separation of powers. Pointing to the Article II Vesting Clause, the Court wrote that "[t]he entire 'executive Power' belongs to the President alone." It held that statutory independence for a principal executive officer who is not a part of a board of commission impermissibly restricts the President's executive power.
The Court distinguished Humphrey's Executor, holding that Humphrey's upheld the independence of a multi-member board, the FTC, whereas the CFPB has a single head. According to the Court, unlike the FTC (at the time), the CFPB's single Director is not a "body of experts," is not "non-partisan," and does not have staggered terms that "prevent complete turnover in leadership." Moreover, the CFPB Director has greater responsibilities than the old FTC did, including the "quintessentially executive power" to seek monetary penalties in federal court.
The Court distinguished Morrison v. Olson, holding that Congress may create an independent inferior officer. The Court said that the CFPB Director was a principal office, and had more wide-ranging authority than the independent counsel in Morrison, and that the independent counsel's prosecutorial authority looked inward, to Executive Branch officials on specified matters, whereas the CFPB Director has authority over "millions of private citizens and businesses, imposing even billion-dollar penalties through administrative adjudications and civil actions."
The Court declined to "extend" those cases to cover the "new situation" of the CFPB Director's independence. The Court said that there was no precedent for this kind of office, and that it "is incompatible with our constitutional structure." "The . . . constitutional strategy is straightforward: divide power everywhere except for the Presidency, and render the President directly accountable to the people through regular elections. In that scheme, individual executive officials will still wield significant authority, but that authority remains subject to the ongoing supervision and control of the elected President."
But even as the Court struck statutory independence for the Director, it declined to take down the entire CFPB. The Court ruled that the independence provision was severable from the rest of the Act, and therefore that the CFPB could remain, Director and all, but without the independence protection.
Justice Kagan, dissenting on independence but concurred on severability, and joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, wrote:
If a removal provision violates the separation of powers, it is because the measure so deprives the President of control over an official as to impede his own constitutional functions. But with or without a for-cause removal provision, the President has at least as much control over an individual as over a commission--and possibly more. That means the constitutional concern is, if anything, ameliorated when the agency has a single head. . . .
In second-guessing the political branches, the majority second-guesses as well the wisdom of the Framers and the judgment of history. It writes in rules to the Constitution that the drafters knew well enough not to put there. It repudiates the lessons of American experience, from the 18th century to the present day. And it commits the Nation to a new static version of governance, incapable of responding to new conditions and challenges.
An article in the New York Times exploring the inner workings of the Washington Post has more than insider media news: it begins by divulging the role of the Washington Post editors in not publishing news about Supreme Court nominee Bret Kavanaugh during his contentious confirmation hearing.
Almost anyone who works in the Washington Post newsroom can look inside its publishing system, Methode, to see what stories are coming. And at the height of the furor over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2018, some who did saw a shocking article awaiting publication.
In the article, Bob Woodward, the Post legend who protected the identity of his Watergate source, Deep Throat, for 30 years, was going to unmask one of his own confidential sources. He was, in particular, going to disclose that Judge Kavanaugh had been an anonymous source in his 1999 book “Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate.”
Mr. Woodward was planning to expose Mr. Kavanaugh because the judge had publicly denied — in a huffy letter in 1999 to The Post — an account about Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton that he had himself, confidentially, provided to Mr. Woodward for his book. (Mr. Kavanaugh served as a lawyer on Mr. Starr’s team.)
The article, described by two Post journalists who read it, would have been explosive, arriving as the nominee battled a decades-old sexual assault allegation and was fighting to prove his integrity.
The article was nearly ready when the executive editor, Martin Baron, stepped in. Mr. Baron urged Mr. Woodward not to breach his arrangement with Mr. Kavanaugh and to protect his old source’s anonymity, three Post employees said. (The three, as well as other Post journalists who spoke to me, insisted on anonymity because The Post prefers that its employees not talk to the media.)
Mr. Baron and other editors persuaded Mr. Woodward that it would be bad for The Post and “bad for Bob” to disclose a source, one of the journalists told me. The piece never ran.
How this is coming to light now is left unexplained.
Friday, June 26, 2020
In a pair of rulings today, here and here, the Ninth Circuit held that President Trump exceeded his authority under federal law and violated the Appropriations Clause in reprogramming funds to build portions of a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
The rulings are a sharp set-back to President Trump's efforts to make good on his promise to build the wall.
Today's rulings come after the case has already been to the Supreme Court. Recall that the Court earlier granted the Administration's motion for a stay of the district court's earlier injunction, affirmed by the Ninth Circuit. The Court's stay meant that the injunction would not remain in place as the case moved forward on the merits. So the case moved forward on the merits, sans injunction. But then the district court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and granted a new injunction. That's why we got today's rulings.
(There's some weirdness here. The Supreme Court granted the stay, stating, "Among the reasons is that the Government has made a sufficient showing at this stage that the plaintiffs have no cause of action to obtain review of the Acting Secretary's compliance with Section 8005." Despite this language, the court today ruled that the plaintiffs in both cases did have causes of action.)
The rulings say that President Trump exceeded his authority under the 2019 Defense Department Appropriations Act and violated the Appropriations Clause, and affirmed a permanent injunction.
The court held that in order to reprogram under Sections 8005 and 9002 of the 2019 Defense Department Appropriations Act, (1) there must be for an unforeseen military requirement and (2) Congress must not have previously denied funding. The court said that President Trump's reprogramming violated both requirements.
As to the first, the court said that the border wall was no "unforeseen military requirement." Among other things, the court noted that President Trump had long advocated for the wall, suggesting that it couldn't have been "unforeseen."
As to the second, the court noted that Congress had previously denied the Administration's request for full funding.
Judge Collins dissented in both cases. Judge Collins argued that the plaintiffs didn't have a cause of action (see the weirdness parenthetical, above), and that even if they did they'd lose on the merits.
Wednesday, June 24, 2020
A sharply divided three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit today ordered Judge Emmet Sullivan to dismiss the criminal case against Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI. This is hardly the final word, though: the extraordinary ruling is sure to go to the full circuit, and perhaps even the Supreme Court.
Flynn was charged with lying to the FBI as part of the FBI's investigation into connections between the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 election. He pleaded guilty--twice, before two different federal judges--and agreed to cooperate with the government in its ongoing investigation. The court deferred sentencing to allow Flynn to continue to cooperate.
Flynn then moved to withdraw his plea, arguing that the government failed to produce exculpatory evidence. Most recently, DOJ came across material that, according to the government, means that the prosecution can no longer prove the charge. So the government moved to dismiss the case.
Judge Sullivan appointed an amicus to represent the no-dismissal side, invited other amici to weigh in, and set a hearing date on the motions--all to determine whether he should grant "leave of court" to dismiss. (That's the standard under a Rule 48(a) motion to dismiss a criminal charge.) (Judge Sullivan had serious concerns about the government's motion, given the many, many irregularities in the case.)
Then Flynn filed a writ of mandamus in the D.C. Circuit, and the government weighed in to support it. Note that Judge Sullivan had not yet even held the hearing on the motion to dismiss, much less denied it.
(Just gotta say it: Wow. Not your usual federal prosecution.)
Today the D.C. Circuit ruled for Flynn and ordered the prosecution dismissed. Judge Rao wrote the majority opinion, which concluded that Judge Sullivan committed clear legal error. Moreover, by ordering dismissal without a hearing or further consideration by the lower court, the court said that the district court had no role under the Rule 48(a) "with-leave-of-court" standard.
Judge Rao started by noting that a prosecution's motion to dismiss is entitled to a presumption of regularity. But the court wrote that Judge Sullivan raised nothing to challenge this presumption, or to show that this was the kind of case that warranted a hearing or further judicial inquiry into the motion. As such, the court concluded that Judge Sullivan went beyond his authority in appointing an amicus and scheduling a hearing. Again: All this before Judge Sullivan even held the hearing, much less ruled against dismissal.
Judge Rao explained in separation-of-powers terms:
In this case, the district court's actions will result in specific harms to the exercise of the Executive Branch's exclusive prosecutorial power. The contemplated proceedings would likely require the Executive to reveal the internal deliberative process behind its exercise of prosecutorial discretion, interfering with the Article II charging authority. Thus, the district court's appointment of the amicus and demonstrated intent to scrutinize the reasoning and motives of the Department of Justice constitute irreparable harms that cannot be remedied on appeal.
Judge Rao seemed to try to leave open some room for a district court to determine whether to grant "leave of court" on a Rule 48(a) motion to dismiss. But if this case doesn't fit the bill (again, with all its irregularities), it's not clear what would.
Judge Wilkins dissented. In short:
This appears to be the first time that we have issued a writ of mandamus to compel a district court to rule in a particular manner on a motion without first giving the lower court a reasonable opportunity to issue its own ruling; the first time any court has held that a district court must grant "leave of court" pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 48(a) without even holding a hearing on the merits of the motion; and the first time we have issued the writ even though the petitioner has an adequate alternative remedy [that is, appeal after a denial of the motion to dismiss], on the theory that another party [the government] would not have had an adequate alternative remedy if it had filed a petition as well. Any one of these is sufficient reason to exercise our discretion to deny the petition; together they compel its rejection.
Tuesday, June 2, 2020
A unanimous Supreme Court yesterday ruled in Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico v. Auerelius Investment, LLC, that the President's appointment of members to the Financial Oversight Board, without Senate advice and consent, didn't violate (or even implicate) the Appointments Clause.
The ruling is a win for the Board and its authority to carry Puerto Rico through bankruptcy.
The Court said first that the Appointments Clause applies to all officers of the United States, including officers who operate within territories. But it went on to say that Board members in this case aren't officers of the United States, and the Appointments Clause therefore doesn't restrict their appointment.
The Court looked functionally to the Board's powers and duties and concluded that they're local, not national. The Court said that Board members therefore aren't officers of the United States covered by the Appointments Clause.
Justice Thomas concurred. He argued that the Court should have looked to the original public meaning of the Appointments Clause, not the "ill-defined path" that it took, and come out with the same result.
Justice Sotomayor concurred, too. She argued that given Puerto Rico's history--and, in particular, the compact between Puerto Rico and the federal government that established home rule for the island--it wasn't clear that Congress could create the Board at all. But nevertheless concurred, because the parties hadn't raised that issue:
These cases raise serious questions about when, if ever, the Federal Government may constitutionally exercise authority to establish territorial officers in a Territory like Puerto Rico, where Congress seemingly ceded that authority long ago to Puerto Rico itself. . . .
The Board members, tasked with determining the financial fate of a self-governing Territory, exist in a twilight zone of accountability, neither selected by Puerto Rico itself nor subject to the strictures of the Appointments Clause. I am skeptical that the Constitution countenances this freewheeling exercise of control over a population that the Federal Government has explicitly agreed to recognize as operating under a government of their own choosing, pursuant to a constitution of their own choosing. . . . Nevertheless, because these issues are not properly presented in these cases, I reluctantly concur in the judgment.
Monday, June 1, 2020
A sharply divided Supreme Court ruled today in Thole v. U.S. Bank that retirement-plan participants can't sue their former employer for mismanagement of the plan, because they hadn't demonstrated sufficient direct and concrete harm.
The ruling deals a sharp blow to defined-benefit plan participants who seek to sue for plan mismanagement. Under the ruling, those participants have to wait until their actual benefits drop, or close to it. And even so, the Court's ruling may give employers an out. At the same time, the ruling shields employers from liability unless and until their mismanagement is so bad that it actually or imminently results in lowered benefits.
While the plaintiffs sued under the individual cause of action in ERISA, the Court's ruling is based on Article III standing. This means that Congress can't change the law to create more permissive standing.
The case arose when two retirees of U.S. Bank sued that Bank and others for mismanaging their retirement-plan assets. The plaintiffs sued under ERISA's individual cause of action.
The Court ruled that the plaintiffs lacked Article III standing because, in short, they didn't suffer a harm. Justice Kavanaugh wrote for the five conservatives that the plaintiffs' monthly defined benefits didn't drop, or wouldn't imminently drop, based on the mismanagement, and any court ruling wouldn't affect their monthly benefits under the plan.
The Court also noted that the plaintiffs' benefits wouldn't drop even if the retirement plan failed, because the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation backstops failed retirement plans. This raises the question whether the plaintiffs would have standing even if the plan's failing led to a reduction in the benefits that the plan pays out (because the plaintiffs, after all, would theoretically continue to receive the full measure of their defined-benefit plan, even if from the PBGC, and not the plan).
The ruling means that the plaintiffs have to wait to sue until the plan's failure actually or imminently results in a reduction in their own benefits. And even then, the Court might've written in an out for the employer by noting that the PBGC backstops failing plans.
Justice Sotomayor, joined by the three other progressives, dissented. She argued that the plaintiffs have an interest in their plan's integrity, just as private trust beneficiaries have an interest in protecting their trust; that breach of a fiduciary duty is a cognizable injury, even if it doesn't result in financial harm or increased risk of nonpayment; and that the plaintiffs have associational standing to sue on behalf of the plan.
It is hard to overstate the harmful consequences of the Court's conclusion. . . . After today's decision, about 35 million people with defined-benefits plans will be vulnerable to fiduciary misconduct. The Court's reasoning allows fiduciaries to misuse pension funds so long as the employer has a strong enough balance sheet during (or, as alleged here, because of) the misbehavior. Indeed, the Court holds that the Constitution forbids retirees to remedy or prevent fiduciary breaches in federal court until their retirement plan or employer is on the brink of financial ruin. This is a remarkable result, and not only because this case is bookended by two financial crises.
Friday, May 15, 2020
The Sixth Circuit ruled earlier this week that Kentucky Governor Beshear's business shut-down order likely violates the Free Exercise Clause as applied to religious services. The ruling prevents the government from enforcing the shut-down order against religious services while the case moves forward. At the same time, however, the ruling tells the Governor how to regulate religious services consistent with free exercise (simply impose social distancing requirements, e.g.).
The court recognized that religiously-neutral, generally-applicable laws are usually upheld (under rational basis review). But it said that the shut-down order wasn't generally applicable, as demonstrated by the many "life-sustaining" "exceptions" to shut-down:
Do the four pages of exceptions in the orders, and the kinds of group activities allowed, remove them from the safe harbor for generally applicable laws? We think so. As a rule of thumb, the more exceptions to a prohibition, the less likely it will count as a generally applicable, non-discriminatory law. "At some point, an exception-ridden policy takes on the appearance and reality of a system of individualized exemptions, the antithesis of a neutral and generally applicable policy and just the kind of state action that must run the gauntlet of strict scrutiny. . . .
The exception for "life-sustaining" businesses allows law firms, laundromats, liquor stores, gun shops, airlines, mining operations, funeral homes, and landscaping businesses to continue to operate so long as they follow social-distancing and other health-related precautions. But the orders do not permit soul-sustaining group services of faith organizations, even if the groups adhere to all the public health guidelines required of the other services.
The court went on to say that the Governor's order would likely fail strict scrutiny, because it wasn't narrowly tailored. "There are plenty of less restrictive ways to address these public-health issues," for example, "insist[ing] that the congregants adhere to social-distancing and other health requirements and leave it at that--just as the Governor has done for comparable secular activities[.]"
Thursday, May 14, 2020
A sharply divided Wisconsin Supreme Court struck the isolation order issued by the state Department of Health Services Secretary-Designee, effective immediately. The 4-3 ruling said that the order didn't go through administrative rule-making process and exceeded DHS's statutory authority.
The ruling says nothing about Governor Evers's emergency order. And nothing in the ruling restricts the state DHS from going back to the drawing board to tailor an administrative rule or order to the court's ruling.
The majority opinion focuses almost exclusively on administrative law and statutory authority.
But don't stop there: the lengthy concurring and dissenting opinions, and their back-and-forth on the separation of powers, are well worth a look--if only for the dramatically different ways that the Justices apply these principles.