Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Argument Preview: Does an Elected Body Violate Free Speech When it Censures a Member?

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this morning in Houston Community College System v. Wilson, the case testing whether an elected body violates the First Amendment when it censures one of its members for the member's critical and disruptive public speech. Here's my Preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court cases, with permission:

Case at a Glance

In 2013, David Wilson was elected as a trustee on the Houston Community College System (HCC) Board, the governing body for the HCC. During his tenure, Wilson engaged in a variety of public activities that were highly critical of the Board and his fellow trustees. The Board adopted a resolution that censured Wilson and limited certain privileges that he enjoyed as a member. Wilson sued, arguing that his censure violated free speech.

INTRODUCTION

Elected legislative bodies in the United States have long exercised the power to censure members for their inappropriate or disruptive behavior or speech. As a general matter, bare censure does not violate free speech, because it does not chill or restrict the censured member’s speech. But Wilson contends that the Board impermissibly censured him for speech “outside the legislative sphere,” and that his censure impermissibly included punishment, because it limited certain privileges that he enjoyed as a member.

ISSUE

Can an elected legislative body, consistent with the First Amendment, censure a member for speech outside the legislative sphere and with restrictions on legislative privileges?

FACTS

In 2013, David Wilson was elected as a trustee on the Houston Community College System (HCC) Board, the governing body for the HCC. Wilson served as one of nine trustees on the Board, each of whom represented a single-member district for a six-year term and served without compensation.

During his tenure, Wilson engaged in a variety of public activities that were highly critical of the Board and his fellow trustees. For example, he arranged robocalls and spoke out on a local radio station in opposition to the Board’s decision to fund a campus in Qatar. He sued HCC in state court after the Board allowed a member to vote on a measure by videoconference. He separately sued HCC and the trustees in state court after the Board allegedly excluded him from an executive session. (In all, Wilson filed four lawsuits against HCC, costing HCC nearly $300,000 in legal fees.) And he hired a private investigator to confirm that one of the trustees actually resided in the district she represented, and to investigate HCC itself. He published his various grievances on a website, where he referred to his fellow trustees and HCC by name.

On January 18, 2018, the Board adopted a resolution censuring Wilson for his behavior. The resolution said that Wilson acted in a manner “not consistent with the best interests of the College or the Board, and in violation of the Board Bylaws Code of Conduct.” The resolution noted that the censure was the “highest level of sanction available” again Wilson.

The resolution instructed Wilson to “immediately cease and desist from all inappropriate conduct.” It further provided that Wilson was “ineligible for election to Board officer positions for the 2018 calendar year,” that he was “ineligible for reimbursement for any College-related travel” for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, and that he would have to seek Board approval to gain access to any funds in his Board “community affairs” account. It warned that “any repeat of improper behavior by Mr. Wilson will constitute grounds for further disciplinary action by the Board.”

Wilson then amended his first state-court complaint to include claims against HCC and the trustees for violating his free-speech rights under the First Amendment. He sought $10,000 in damages for mental anguish, $10,000 in punitive damages, and attorney’s fees. HCC and the trustees removed the case to federal court, on the ground that the case now involved a federal question.

The district court ruled that Wilson could not demonstrate an actual injury, and dismissed the case for lack of standing. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings. The court wrote, based on circuit precedent, that “a reprimand against an elected official for speech addressing a matter of public concern is an actionable First Amendment claim . . . .” Wilson v. Houston Community College System, 955 F.3d 490 (5th Cir. 2020).

In the meantime, Wilson resigned his seat for HCC’s District 2, and ran as a candidate for HCC’s District 1. He lost in a run-off election.

This appeal followed.

CASE ANALYSIS

As a general matter, the First Amendment protects speech against government action that restricts, punishes, or chills speech. But in general, it does not protect action that merely responds to speech with, well, more speech.

Applying those general principles, some courts have held that an elected body’s mere reprimand of a member, or other members’ mere reprimand of a member, without more, does not violate the First Amendment. That’s because the legislative body or its members simply responded to another member’s speech with more speech of its own (the reprimand). The Fifth Circuit, in contrast, held that the Board’s mere reprimand of Wilson through censure may violate the First Amendment. (Remember, the Fifth Circuit did not rule on the merits; it only remanded the case for further proceedings on Wilson’s First Amendment claim.)

The parties therefore dispute whether the Board’s censure of Wilson (with or without the censure’s restrictions on his privileges as a member) was punitive. If it was, then the First Amendment applies; if not, it doesn’t.

But Wilson adds a twist. Distinguishing the circuit courts that have held that mere reprimand through censure, without more, does not violate the First Amendment, Wilson adds that an elected body may merely censure a member for speech “within the legislative sphere,” that is, while conducting legislative business, but not for speech outside that sphere.

Against this backdrop, HCC argues first that the Board’s censure resolution amounted to permissible “peer criticism” that “may be voiced by other members individually or by a majority speaking for the body as a whole.” Either way, HCC contends that its resolution did not suppress or chill Wilson’s speech, “compel him to espouse the majority’s views,” or impede his performance of his job. (HCC’s argument hinges on the theory that the Board’s censure resolution was a mere reprimand, without punishment or sanction.) It therefore did not violate the First Amendment.

HCC argues next that its censure resolution is well supported by historical tradition, going back to the Founding, and even before. It says that the English parliament censured members as early as the sixteenth century for speech outside official parliamentary proceedings, often in ways that included discipline beyond bare censure; that this power migrated to colonial assemblies, and, later, state legislatures and Congress; and that censure in response to members’ speech is widely practiced today among local elected bodies.

HCC argues that recognizing a First Amendment claim in response to a bare censure resolution (as the Fifth Circuit did in this case) “would perversely halt that speech-rich local practice.” According to HCC, that’s because a “legislative censure is important government counter-speech on a matter of public concern.” In other words, censure adds to aggregate valuable speech in a public debate; it doesn’t impede speech. Because “the Constitution safeguards . . . the right of both sides to be heard,” HCC contends that disputes between elected members and a legislative body should be resolved by the voters.

The government weighs in as amicus to elaborate on the history and tradition of censure resolutions; to put a finer point on the argument that an elected body’s censure resolution amounts to government speech; and to emphasize that the Court need not address tougher issues outside the Question Presented (for example, when an elected body disciplines a member for speech beyond bare censure). (The government seems to go farther than HCC, in that it argues that an elected body can even discipline or punish a member, including by censure.)

Wilson counters first by conceding that a legislative body may censure a member’s speech “within the legislative sphere,” that is, on the chamber floor, in legislative hearings, or in legislative reports, for example. But he says that a legislative body may not censure or otherwise punish a member’s speech “outside the legislative sphere.” He claims, contrary to HCC, that mere censure, without more, is punitive, and thus an impermissible response to speech outside the legislative sphere. He claims that historical evidence, modern precedents, and contemporary practice all confirm this. He points to examples from the Founding Era, more recent court rulings (including Supreme Court rulings that have “held in other contexts that formal censures can violate the First Amendment”), and contemporary authorities on parliamentary procedure. He writes that “[m]any such bylaws expressly state that censures may not be entered against members in response to their speech.”

In any event, Wilson argues that the Board’s censure resolution here went farther than mere censure. He points out that it included revoking and limiting certain of his “privileges of office,” including barring his access to reimbursements for college-related travel and restricting his access to community affairs funds. He also points out that the censure expressly “directed” him “to immediately cease and desist” his outside activities against the Board or face “further disciplinary action.” He contends that because his censure was “plainly punitive,” it violated the First Amendment, “[w]hatever one might say about formal censures as a general matter.”

Wilson argues that the censure violates his free-speech rights under Bond v. Floyd. 385 U.S. 116 (1966). The Court in that case held that the Georgia legislature violated the First Amendment when it excluded a member for his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War. Wilson claims that while his censure falls short of exclusion, his censure nevertheless “included practical disabilities intended to prevent Wilson from performing his official functions”—just like exclusion. “Under Bond, the censure therefore violated the First Amendment.”

Wilson contends that his censure was not protected government speech. He says that in contrast to ordinary government speech (which might include a mere position statement, for example), his censure was punitive. He claims that if censures were government speech, “there would be nothing to stop elective bodies (or any governmental agency) from censuring journalists for critical coverage of the government, including (so it would seem) revoking privileges like press passes in response.”

Wilson argues that his punitive censure cuts against the values of the First Amendment, because it impedes speech (and doesn’t enhance aggregate speech). He claims that Board members had numerous other ways to express their opposition to his speech (and thus add to aggregate speech, consistent with the First Amendment). But he says that his punitive censure only serves to shut down his speech. He asserts that if his censure stands, “elective assemblies [would be empowered] to use their formal censure power to chill dramatically the speech of out-of-favor elected officials.”

Finally, Wilson emphasizes that a ruling in his favor would only disallow “a very narrow range of official censures.” According to Wilson, that’s because censures are “shockingly rare in the United States,” and almost always in response to speech “within the legislative sphere.” He says that a ruling in his favor would only disallow censures outside the legislative sphere, which are already “almost unheard of.”

SIGNIFICANCE

The Court has never squarely addressed whether an elected body’s censure of a member implicates or violates the First Amendment. Some lower courts have, however, and there’s some tension, or even conflict, in how they have addressed the question. At least three federal circuit courts (the Fourth, Sixth, and Tenth Circuits) and the Vermont State Supreme Court have all ruled that censure does not violate the First Amendment. The Fifth Circuit ruled to the contrary.

In sorting this out, look for the Court to consider several factors. First, the Court will likely consider whether an elected body’s mere reprimand, standing alone, is sufficient punishment to trigger First Amendment scrutiny. Next, if not, the Court will need to consider how much punishment or retaliatory action a censure resolution must include in order to trigger the First Amendment. In particular, the Court will have to consider whether an elected body’s restrictions on a member’s legislative privileges, without more, are sufficient punishment. Third, the Court may consider any differences between an elected body’s formal censure resolution and other members’ less formal reprimands (which are constitutionally protected), and whether those differences are constitutionally significant. Finally, the Court will consider Wilson’s claim that censure is valid for speech “within the legislative sphere,” but not outside it.

The Court’s approach may also depend on how it understands censure. If it understands censure as adding to aggregate speech, as HCC and the government argue, it will more likely allow censure, consistent with its more general trend to promote more speech, not less. If it understands censure as detracting from aggregate speech, however, as Wilson argues, it will more likely scrutinize censure. In a different dimension, if it understands censure as government speech, as HCC and the government argue, it will more likely allow censure, consistent with its more general trend to allow the government to say whatever it likes. If it understands censure as government punishment, however, as Wilson argues, it will more likely scrutinize censure.

Finally, and most importantly, the case could impact the censure practices of local governments across the country. HCC argues in its cert. petition that thousands of local governments authorize censure of members, and that “it is frequently used” for a range of member speech that “is quite broad.”

November 2, 2021 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Court to Hear Arguments in Texas Abortion Cases

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in the Texas abortion cases. Here's my oral argument preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:

Abortion Rights

Can federal courts hear challenges by private plaintiffs or the federal government to halt the enforcement of a law that authorizes private citizens to sue doctors for providing an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy?

Case at a Glance

Texas’s S.B. 8 prohibits a doctor from performing an abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, in plain violation of settled Supreme Court precedents. At the same time, the law is designed to foreclose traditional channels of judicial review and effectively prevent federal courts from hearing challenges to it. S.B. 8 does this by authorizing private plaintiffs (and not state officials) to enforce its ban by suing doctors who provide an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy for civil damages. Taken together, S.B. 8’s abortion ban and its outsourced enforcement have achieved their objective: abortions have effectively stopped in Texas. And the federal appeals courts, citing procedural hurdles, have so far declined to intervene.

INTRODUCTION

S.B. 8 is a flat violation of a woman’s fundamental right to an abortion under Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Ordinarily, such a law would be subject to federal judicial review. But S.B. 8’s enforcement mechanism—private lawsuits against abortion providers—is specifically designed to thwart federal judicial review. These cases test whether abortion-rights advocates and doctors or the federal government can nevertheless sue in federal court to stop the law.

ISSUE

Can abortion-rights advocates and abortion doctors or the federal government sue in federal court to halt enforcement of Texas’s S.B. 8?

FACTS

Texas’s S.B. 8 is an unusual, even unprecedented, act. On its face, S.B. 8 prohibits a physician from knowingly performing an abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, usually around six weeks into a pregnancy, before most women even know that they are pregnant. It contains no exceptions for rape or incest. And it provides only a limited and ill-defined exception for a “medical emergency.”

On its face, that’s a flat violation of a woman’s fundamental right to an abortion. Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992), establish that government can regulate abortion before a fetus is viable (that is, before it is able to survive outside the womb), usually around 22 to 24 weeks into the pregnancy, so long as the regulation does not create an “undue burden” on a woman’s access to abortion. S.B. 8’s ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy plainly constitutes an undue burden on a woman’s access to abortion before viability. In other words, S.B. 8 plainly violates Roe and Casey.

But that’s not why S.B. 8 is unusual. Indeed, a host of states have enacted abortion bans that plainly constitute an undue burden on a woman’s access to abortion before viability. They have enacted such laws for the stated purpose of challenging Roe v. Wade itself, and persuading the Court to overturn the case. In fact, the Court will consider such a law next month, when it hears oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Woman’s Health Organization, a case testing Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. S.B. 8’s plain violation of Roe and Casey doesn’t make the law unusual; it makes it a sign of our times.

So here’s why S.B. 8 is unusual, even unprecedented: it outsources enforcement. In particular, S.B. 8 specifically prohibits state officials from enforcing the ban, which is the usual way that states enforce their laws, and instead authorizes “any person” to sue an abortion provider who provides an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. It also authorizes “any person” to sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion, or even intends to aid or abet an abortion, after six weeks of pregnancy. (S.B. 8 prohibits a plaintiff from suing the woman herself, however.) A plaintiff in these suits need not have any connection to the abortion, or even any connection to Texas. They can get injunctive relief, stopping the defendant from further violating S.B. 8. They can also recover a minimum of $10,000 for each abortion, plus costs and attorney’s fees. That alone creates a strong financial incentive for doctors to stop performing abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

But there’s more. S.B. 8 prohibits a defendant in these actions from claiming that they believed that S.B. 8 was unconstitutional. (In other words, S.B. 8 purports to stop potential defendants from raising this argument as a defense in an S.B. 8 lawsuit.) And it restricts (although it apparently does not fully prohibit) a defendant from arguing that S.B. 8 creates an undue burden on a woman’s right to abortion. S.B. 8 also prohibits a court from awarding attorney’s fees or court costs to a defendant, even if the defendant prevails. As a result, a prevailing defendant—even against an obviously spurious lawsuit—must cover all costs and attorney’s fees to defend the action. That creates a strong financial incentive for doctors to stop performing all abortions.

Finally, yet more. S.B. 8’s venue rules allow plaintiffs to strategically file their cases in Texas courts that are most amendable to their claims, and to block a defendant’s attempt to transfer to another court. Moreover, S.B. 8’s issue- and claims-preclusion provisions seemingly allow an endless line of plaintiffs to sue an abortion provider, or anyone who aids or abets an abortion, even for the same abortion. (At the same time, another provision of the act says that “a court may not award relief . . . if a defendant demonstrates that the defendant previously paid the full amount of statutory damages . . . in a previous action for that particular abortion . . . .” Taken together, the provisions seem to allow a variety of plaintiffs to sue a defendant for the same abortion, but restrict the court in awarding relief if a defendant has already paid in an earlier case.)

In short, Texas designed S.B. 8 to violate a woman’s fundamental right to abortion under Roe and Casey; effectively to halt abortions in the state; and specifically, to thwart judicial review. That’s not commentary; it’s exactly what Texas legislators said when they enacted the law.

Anticipating these results, Whole Woman’s Health, along with Texas abortion providers and individuals and organizations that support abortion patients, sued to stop S.B. 8 before it went into effect, on September 1, 2021. The plaintiffs sued several state officials, including state court clerks and judges, and a private person, on the ground that they would enforce S.B. 8.

The district court denied a motion to dismiss the case. The Fifth Circuit stayed the district court proceedings and rejected the plaintiffs’ motion for an injunction pending appeal. On emergency appeal, the Supreme Court then declined to grant an injunction against S.B. 8 or to vacate the Fifth Circuit’s stay pending appeal. The Court said that federal courts have the power to enjoin individuals, not laws. It also suggested that the plaintiffs sued the wrong defendants, because “it is unclear whether the named defendants in this lawsuit can or will seek to enforce the Texas law . . . .” (Four justices sharply dissented.) The ruling meant that S.B. 8 went into effect on September 1.

Soon after the Court declined to intervene, the federal government sued Texas itself (and not individuals), arguing that S.B. 8 was unconstitutional. The district court granted the government’s motion for a preliminary injunction, but the Fifth Circuit stayed the injunction pending appeal.

The Supreme Court then agreed to hear both cases and expedited the briefing and arguments. Each case raises the questions whether the federal courts can hear the plaintiffs’ challenges to S.B. 8, and whether they can halt enforcement by the defendants.

CASE ANALYSIS

At their most fundamental level, both cases test whether the federal courts can hear the plaintiffs’ challenges and enjoin the enforcement of S.B. 8. That’s a contested question, because Texas, by outsourcing S.B. 8’s enforcement to private plaintiffs, diluted and dispersed the enforcement responsibility, making it hard to identify actual defendants before anybody files an S.B. 8 lawsuit. And because S.B. 8’s financial incentives all but prohibit doctors from performing any abortion in the first place, S.B. 8 ensures that there will be few, if any, S.B. 8 lawsuits where a doctor could challenge S.B. 8 after enforcement. (In any event, S.B. 8 limits how doctors can raise challenges in those lawsuits.)

Despite S.B. 8’s design to thwart federal judicial review, the plaintiffs in both cases contend that the federal courts can hear their cases; and because of S.B. 8’s design to thwart judicial review, the plaintiffs argue that the federal courts must hear their cases. Texas, for its part, contends that S.B. 8 technically allows judicial review through S.B. 8 cases themselves—and not in through these federal court cases—even though S.B. 8 itself limits or effectively eliminates that option.

The two cases raise separate but overlapping arguments. (Texas filed a single brief covering both cases.) Because there are some differences, however, we summarize the arguments in the cases separately. Let’s start with Whole Woman’s Health, then we’ll examine United States v. Texas.

Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson

The plaintiffs argue first that their claim “fit[s] neatly” with 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the federal statute that authorizes a civil lawsuit against individuals acting under the authority of state law for violating constitutional rights. They argue that Section 1983 specifically authorizes suits against “judicial officers” acting in their “judicial capacity.” They contend that the “text and purpose” of Section 1983 allows their suit to go forward against the state officials, including the judges, and the private defendant.

The plaintiffs argue next that their suit for injunctive relief against state officers is valid under Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908). The Court in that case held that a plaintiff can sue a state official for prospective injunctive relief, notwithstanding the state’s general immunity from suits for monetary damages under state sovereign immunity and the Eleventh Amendment. The plaintiffs assert that the court clerks, judges, and state officials who are defendants in this action all play roles, to one degree or another, in S.B. 8’s enforcement, and therefore fall within the Ex Parte Young doctrine. Moreover, the plaintiffs write that “where, as here, a law hamstrings state courts’ ability to provide defendants a fair opportunity to vindicate their rights—all while deputizing millions of private citizens to sue—equity requires that federal courts step in and prevent irreparable constitutional injury.”

Third, the plaintiffs argue that they have standing to sue. They contend that the threat of enforcement of S.B. 8 creates an injury (the lack of access to abortion, as illustrated by the actual injury women suffered after the Court declined to halt S.B. 8’s implementation, and the resumption of abortions during the period of injunction in United States v. Texas); that the defendants, to one degree or another, caused that injury; and that an injunction against the defendants would redress the injury, because it would ensure that women again have access to abortion in Texas. The plaintiffs also say that the defendants’ vigorous defense of S.B. 8 in the courts ensures a “sharp presentation” of the “complex and novel” questions.

Finally, the plaintiffs argue that the Court should uphold the district court injunction in order to “protect federal supremacy from the imminent threat posed by S.B. 8 and copycat bills already under consideration by States seeing what Texas has achieved thus far—enactment of a law that baldly defies this Court’s precedent yet is insulated from effective judicial review.” The plaintiffs contend that if S.B. 8 stands, nothing prohibits states from similarly insulating other state laws that blatantly violate constitutional rights from judicial review simply by outsourcing enforcement, exactly as Texas did here.

In response, Texas argues that the plaintiffs lack standing, and that state sovereign immunity bars their suit. Texas says that state executive officials do not have authority to enforce S.B. 8. As a result, the state says that the plaintiffs lack standing to sue those officials, because their actions cannot cause the plaintiffs any injuries, and any judicial relief would not redress the plaintiffs’ injuries. For the same reason, Texas argues that those officials simply do not fall within Ex Parte Young’s exception to Eleventh Amendment immunity. Texas claims that state judges are neutral adjudicators, not adverse parties (or “judicial enforcers” of S.B. 8), and that they are bound to apply both S.B. 8 and Casey. Given this, Texas concludes that the plaintiffs lack standing, because the plaintiffs’ requested relief—an injunction instructing them to apply Casey—would not redress their alleged harm.

Penny Clarkston, the district clerk of Smith County, Texas, filed her own brief. Mark Lee Dickson, “a pastor and anti-abortion activist,” filed his own brief. They made substantially similar arguments.

United States v. Texas

The government argues first that it has authority to sue Texas in equity to protect its interests. The government says that it can sue in equity to prevent Texas from thwarting judicial review under federal law. It claims that it does not sue merely to enforce its citizens’ constitutional rights, but also to prevent Texas’s “unprecedented attack on the supremacy of the Constitution as interpreted by this Court”—a “distinct sovereign interest” that forms the basis of its suit in equity. The government contends that it also has an interest in preventing S.B. 8 from interfering with its own programs that “require federal employees and contractors to arrange, facilitate, or pay for abortions in some circumstances,” and holding federal employees and contractors liable “for carrying out their federal duties.”

The government argues next that the federal courts have the power to grant relief in favor of the government and against Texas. The government claims that under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, an injunction against Texas can also bind state officers and agents and “other persons who are in active concert or participation” with the state or its officers. According to the government, this means that an injunction can bind plaintiffs who bring S.B. 8 suits, court clerks who accept those suits, judges who hear the cases, and other state officials who would enforce any judgments. The government acknowledges that some of this relief may be unusual. But so is S.B. 8. “And having chosen an unprecedented scheme in a deliberate effort to thwart ordinary judicial review, Texas should not be heard to complain when the federal courts exercise remedial authorities that are usually unnecessary.”

Finally, the government argues that the federal courts can grant declaratory relief (declaring that S.B. 8 is invalid), because the government’s power to bring this case in equity “also allows it to seek a declaratory judgment.” The government asserts that declaratory relief would arm abortion providers with a defense in S.B. 8 suits against them, providing “another reason why those suits must be dismissed.” But in any event, the government claims that declaratory relief is no substitute for injunctive relief. That’s the only way “[t]o halt the irreparable injury arising from Texas’s defiance of this Court’s precedent and systematic denial of constitutional rights within the State’s borders . . . .”

Texas counters that the government lacks standing for the same reasons why the Whole Woman’s Health plaintiffs lack standing, but more. Texas says that it does not cause the government harm “by the mere existence of an allegedly unconstitutional state law that may affect private parties.” The state says that the government’s suit amounts to a request for an “advisory opinion” from the Court, and that Court lacks authority under Article III of the Constitution to issue such an opinion. Texas claims that the district court was wrong to hold that the government could “skirt its obligation to show its own cognizable injury” by drawing on the government’s interest in protecting U.S. citizens under federal supremacy principles. The state says that the Supreme Clause does not grant the government a right to sue to protect U.S. citizens; instead, the government, like private parties, must allege that it suffered a harm to itself.

Texas argues next that the government lacks a statutory or equitable basis for requesting an injunction. The state says that the “numerous statutory mechanism” for enforcing constitutional rights do not authorize the government to sue to vindicate U.S. citizens’ substantive-due-process rights. And it says that equitable principles do not authorize the government to sue to vindicate U.S. citizens’ rights just because the state denied those citizens the ability to enforce their own rights. Texas asserts that if the plaintiffs in Whole Woman’s Health want to protect their rights, they can do so as state-court defendants in S.B. 8 civil actions. The government lacks authority to bring this action to enforce their rights for them.

Third, Texas argues that S.B. 8 does not violate the Constitution. The state claims that it has incorporated Casey’s “undue burden” test into S.B. 8 by allowing an abortion doctor to use “undue burden” as a defense in an S.B. 8 action. The state writes that under S.B. 8, “Texas may not impose liability in cases where doing so would cause an undue burden on a woman seeking an abortion—but neither private parties nor the Department of Justice can compel Texas to support abortion beyond that obligatory floor.” Texas says that this comports with Casey, and does not conflict with federal programs in violation of federal supremacy. “Far from discriminating against the federal government, SB 8 is subject to a state-law presumption that it will not apply to the federal government.”

Finally, Texas argues that the district court’s injunction against “the State” amounts to an impermissible injunction against a law, not a person. That’s because none of the state executive defendants can enforce S.B. 8; federal courts cannot enjoin state courts to apply state and federal law (state courts already do that); and private actors are not “state actors” just because they bring an S.B. 8 suit against other private parties.

Three private citizens—Jeff Tuley, Erick Graham, and Mistie Sharp—filed a separate brief as intervenors, making substantially similar arguments. They claim that they intended to bring S.B. 8 suits only against abortion providers for abortions not covered by Casey, and so also argue that the government cannot sue to halt their S.B. 8 suits “over conduct that is unprotected by the Constitution.”

SIGNIFICANCE

Everybody agrees that S.B. 8 is singular and unprecedented. It plainly violates a woman’s fundamental right to abortion, and, by outsourcing enforcement to private plaintiffs, it thwarts traditional channels of judicial review. For Whole Woman’s Health and the government (and a host of others), this is the problem. For Texas (and a host of others), this is the point.

Whether problem or point, S.B. 8 had its predictable and intended results: It effectively halted abortions in Texas. Texas women who seek an abortion today must travel to neighboring states or other locations where they can still get an abortion. (And they have, flooding abortion providers in neighboring states.) Or, if they cannot afford the time away from work or family or the expense of travel (as is so often the case), or if their health prevents travel, they must go without a doctor-provided abortion.

Time is obviously of the essence, in two ways. On the front end, many or most women don’t even discover their pregnancy until after the sixth week, when S.B. 8 bans abortion. As a result, by the time they know they’re pregnant, many or most women effectively cannot now obtain an abortion in Texas. On the back end, even under Roe and Casey, states can ban abortion entirely after viability, when a fetus can survive outside the womb. As a result, Texas women who seek a doctor-provided abortion must find an out-of-state alternative before about 22 or 24 weeks of pregnancy. All this leaves a narrow window for pregnant women in Texas to exercise their fundamental right to abortion. And, again, that window is only available to Texas women who can travel out of state.  

All this is at issue in the case. If the Court rules that federal courts cannot hear the plaintiffs’ cases and halt enforcement of H.B. 8, abortion will remain effectively unavailable in Texas. (There’s a chance that the Court could also decide whether Roe and Casey remain good law. But given that the Court is slated to hear a direct challenge to Roe this Term (oral arguments come just next month), this seems unlikely.)

That’s not a remote possibility. The Court already declined to halt S.B. 8 in Whole Woman’s Health, over the sharp dissents of four justices. (Chief Justice John Roberts joined Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan in various dissents.) One or more of the justices who voted with the majority in that ruling would have to change sides, or find a distinction that persuades them that the courts can hear the government’s case, even if not Whole Woman’s Health’s case.

Such a ruling could have a profound impact on the right to abortion, even if the Court declines to overturn Roe and Casey. Several other states are already considering laws like Texas’s and will quickly enact those copycat laws if the Court rules against the plaintiffs. This could effectively eliminate abortions in those states, just as S.B. 8 effectively eliminated abortions in Texas.

More, such a ruling could have profound impacts well outside the area of abortion rights. As the plaintiffs and several amici point out, if Texas can engineer a law to ban abortion and effectively evade judicial review, then any state can engineer a law to ban any fundamental right and effectively evade judicial review. And there’s no daylight between a woman’s fundamental right to an abortion and any other fundamental right favored by folks with different political stripes. If you have any doubt, check out the amicus curiae brief of the Firearms Policy Coalition in the Whole Woman’s Health case, for example.

Finally, the Court’s rulings in these cases, and in Dobbs, the Mississippi case up next month, could have significant effects on the 2022 mid-term elections. If the Court strikes these state laws, its ruling could mobilize abortion opponents at the polls. If it upholds them, the rulings could mobilize abortion-rights advocates.

All this is to say that these cases are easily among the most important on the Court’s 2021-22 docket so far.

October 31, 2021 in Abortion, Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Federalism, News, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 22, 2021

Missouri, Texas Sue Biden Administration for Stalling on Border Wall

Missouri and Texas sued the Biden Administration for stalling on wall construction along the southern border. The states claim that Congress appropriated funding for wall construction--and only wall construction--and that the Biden Administration's stall violates the separation of powers, federal appropriations law, and federal administrative law.

The states argue that Congress appropriated $1.37 billion to the Department of Homeland Security in FY 2021 and FY 2020 for "construction of a barrier system along the southwest border" and specified that these funds "shall only be available for barrier systems." They say that when the Biden administration delayed spending the money for wall construction, it impermissibly intruded on Congress's appropriations power in violation of the separation of powers, failed to enforce the law (under the Take Care Clause), and violated federal appropriations law and federal administrative law. The states ask the court to compel the administration to spend the appropriated funds for "construction of a barrier system along the southwest border."

The Biden Administration, for its part, halted wall construction and used appropriated funding to bring wall construction projects into compliance with federal environmental law and federal statutory community-stakeholder-consultation requirements. (DHS had waived these requirements in the Trump Administration. The Biden Administration DHS said that it wouldn't waive them.) The GAO ruled this past summer that this didn't amount to an illegal "impoundment" under the Impoundment Control Act; instead, it was a "programmatic delay." (The states' complaint repeatedly mischaracterizes the GAO opinion.) By this reckoning, the Biden Administration's halt isn't a violation of law; instead, it's a move to comply with law--environmental and stakeholder-consultation requirements that the Trump Administration waived. The Biden Administration also plans to use some of the funding to remediate the environmental damage wrought by wall construction in the Trump years.

Before the case even gets to the merits, however, standing may be an issue. The states claim that the Biden Administration's halt on wall construction leads to greater unauthorized immigration, which causes them to incur costs in issuing drivers licenses, providing public education, and providing health care. It's not at all clear that they can plausibly allege that the Biden Administration's halt causes these harms, and that an order to re-start building would remedy them, as required for Article III standing.

October 22, 2021 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

High Court Leaves Texas Abortion Ban in Place, but Expedites Appeal

The Supreme Court today declined to halt the Texas abortion ban, S.B. 8, but expedited appeals by abortion providers and the Biden administration in two separate orders today.

Today's actions by the Court mean that Texas's law stays in place while the appeals proceed at the Supreme Court. The Court set a super-fast briefing schedule and slated oral argument in both cases for November 1.

In the Biden administration appeal, the Court limited the case to whether the United States can sue Texas, state court judges, state court clerks, other state officials, and private parties to prohibit S.B. 8 from being enforced. Justice Sotomayor dissented, arguing that the Court's failure to halt the law pending appeal effectively means that women can't get abortions in Texas. (We posted on the Biden administration appeal most recently here.)

In the doctors' appeal, the Court will decide both whether the doctors can sue state judges, state officials, and private individuals, and, if so, whether S.B. 8 is unconstitutional.

(Remember that the Court will hear yet another case testing a state's abortion ban--Mississippi's ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. That case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, puts Roe and Casey front and center. Still, there may be room in the case for the Court to uphold the law without flat-out overruling Roe. Oral argument in Dobbs is set for December 1.)

October 22, 2021 in Abortion, Cases and Case Materials, Federalism, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Federal Government Asks Supreme Court to Halt Texas's Antiabortion Law

The federal government yesterday asked the Supreme Court to reinstate a lower court injunction against Texas's S.B. 8, the state law that effectively shut down nearly all abortions in the state. The move came after the Fifth Circuit stayed the district court's injunction pending appeal.

This'll be the second trip that S.B. 8 makes to the high court. Recall that the Court in an earlier pre-enforcement lawsuit allowed S.B. 8 to go into effect. The Court ruled that the plaintiffs in that earlier case sued the wrong defendants, state judicial officers and private individuals who said that they'd enforce S.B. 8.

The federal government's suit is tailored to navigate that procedural problem in the earlier case and put the issue of S.B. 8's constitutionality squarely before the Court.

In order to do this, the federal government sued Texas itself (not its officers or judges, and no private individuals). The government argues that it can do this in order "to vindicate two distinct sovereign interests":

First, to the extent S.B. 8 interferes with the federal government's own activities, it is preempted and violates the doctrine of intergovernmental immunity. Second, S.B. 8 is an affront to the United States' sovereign interests in maintaining the supremacy of federal law and ensuring that the traditional mechanisms of judicial review endorsed by Congress and this Court remain available to challenge unconstitutional state laws. The United States has authority to seek equitable relief to vindicate both interests.

(That first interest goes to government obligations to assist certain individuals, like those incarcerated in federal prison, in getting an abortion. If the government honors that obligation for incarcerated women in Texas, it can be subject to civil suit under S.B. 8 in Texas courts. According to the government, this means that S.B. 8 is preempted by those federal obligations, and that S.B. 8, in allowing suits against the United States, violates the government's immunity.)

As a result, the government argues that its suit avoids the wrong-defendant problem in the earlier suit. After all, Texas itself created the mechanism that outsourced enforcement of S.B. 8 to private parties, and so Texas itself must be accountable in court.

The government asked the Court to vacate the Fifth Circuit's stay, or to grant cert. before judgment and set the case for argument this Term.

October 19, 2021 in Abortion, Cases and Case Materials, Federalism, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News, Preemption, Reproductive Rights | Permalink | Comments (0)

Trump Sues to Stop House Committee From Obtaining January 6 Records

Former President Donald Trump yesterday sued to stop the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol from obtaining White House and other records from the National Archives.

The move comes after the Committee requested records related to the insurrection from the Archives, and President Biden declined to assert executive privilege to halt their release.

Trump's lawsuit claims principally that the Committee lacks a "legitimate legislative purpose" in the material and therefore exceeds its Article I authority. "No investigation can be an end in itself; there is nothing in the overwhelming majority of the records sought that could reasonably be justified as a means of facilitating the legislative task of enacting, amending, or repealing laws." The lawsuit goes on to claim that the Committee's work looks like law enforcement, not law making, in violation of the separation of powers.

In pitching the lack-of-legitimate-lawmaking-purpose claim, the complaint relies on the Court's four-factor approach in Mazars. At least some of the Mazars analysis, however, turned on the fact that congressional committees sought personal financial records (and not official records) of the president. The complaint doesn't try to square that reasoning in Mazars with the fact that the Select Committee seeks only official records.

The complaint also doesn't seriously wrestle with the idea that the Committee seeks the documents to investigate an attack on Congress to stop the electoral-vote count. Seems like that, if anything, would pretty squarely fall within Congress's "legitimate legislative purpose."

The lawsuit also claims executive privilege, attorney-client privilege, attorney work-product privilege, and deliberative process privilege; and it contends that the requested material touches on national security and law enforcement. It contends that to the extent that the Presidential Records Act authorizes the sitting president to override the former president's assertion of executive privilege, the PRA is unconstitutional.

The suit asks the court to declare that "the Committee's requests are invalid and unenforceable under the Constitution and laws of the United States," or, alternatively, to declare "that the Presidential Records Act is an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers and is void ab initio." It also asks for preliminary and permanent injunctions to stop the Committee "from taking any actions to enforce the requests, from imposing sanctions for noncompliance with the requests, and from inspecting, using, maintaining, or disclosing any information obtained as a result of the requests," and to stop the Archives from releasing the documents, at least until "Trump has had sufficient opportunity to conduct a comprehensive review of all records the Archivist intends to produce before any presidential record is produced to the Committee."

October 19, 2021 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, Executive Privilege, News, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 17, 2021

Happy Constitution Day!

Today's the day we commemorate the Constitution's signing, on September 17, 1787. Celebrations are happening around the countries. You might want to particularly check out programming at the National Constitution Center.

Happy Constitution Day!

September 17, 2021 in News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Supreme Court Allows Texas Anti-Abortion Law To Go Into Effect

The Supreme Court allowed Texas's SB8, the highly unusual and severely restrictive anti-abortion law that is specifically designed to evade judicial scrutiny, to go into effect. The Court issued a ruling last night that explained its decision. The text of SB8 is here.

The Court's ruling specifically says that it's not a decision on the constitutionality of Texas's law. Instead, the majority writes that there are too many questions about the technical aspects of the case (given the highly unusual way the law works), and suggests that it's the wrong case, at the wrong time, against the wrong parties.

But as a practical matter the ruling halts abortions in the state where a physician detects a fetal heartbeat (that is, about 85 percent of all abortions) unless and until a plaintiff can bring a successful challenge. And it all but foretells the demise of Roe v. Wade. (Even if the Court doesn't ultimately overturn Roe, this case gives states a roadmap for enacting legislation that eviscerates it.)

All this without full briefing and argument, on the "shadow docket."

The case, Whole Women's Health v. Jackson, tests the constitutionality of Texas's SB8. SB8 requires abortion providers to test for a fetal heartbeat before performing an abortion, and prohibits persons from performing an abortion when they detect a fetal heartbeat. It also prohibits "aiding and abetting" (including funding, even through insurance) of a post-fetal-heartbeat abortion. (Fetal heartbeat usually occurs around six weeks. That's well before the point of viability, and even before many women know they're pregnant. All that's to say that the restriction plainly violates Roe and Casey (and every other post-Roe ruling of the Court that prohibits a state from banning abortion pre-viability).)

But there's a twist. SB8 specifically prohibits state officers from enforcing the law. Instead, it authorizing private individuals to file private suits in state court against any person who provides an abortion in violation of the law. Upon a successful suit, the law requires state courts to enjoin a defendant from providing future abortions in violation of the law, and authorizes at least $10,000 in damages against a person who provides an abortion in violation of the law . . . for each abortion.

The law forbids state courts from awarding costs and attorney fees to successful defendants (which means that they must bear their own costs, even against frivolous and unsuccessful claims). It also says that a defendant cannot defend an action unless the Supreme Court rules that a defendant has third-party standing to assert the right to abortion on behalf of its patients (which it currently has, but that could change), upon a showing that the law imposes an undue burden on the right to abortion (the Casey standard that exists now, but also could (and is likely to) change).

All this means that private individuals, not the state, enforce the law. And at a very high cost. So high, in fact, that abortion providers have stopped providing post-heartbeat abortions, merely out of fear of incurring the costs of defending private lawsuits, even if those end up overturned.

It also means that the law is tricky to test, except as a defense to a private lawsuit (which, again, comes at a prohibitively high cost to abortion providers), and even then not at all a sure thing.

That's all by design. The Texas legislature specifically designed SB8 to effectively halt post-heartbeat abortions in the state and to evade federal judicial review.

And yesterday's opinion shows that it worked. Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett wrote that there were too many questions about the federal court's ability to hear the case by an abortion provider against a private citizen and a state judge who might enforce the law through a private lawsuit. The Court said that it's not clear that the judge will enforce the law in a way "that might permit our intervention," that the Court can issue an injunction against a state judge to halt enforcement of the law, and that the private-citizen defendant will seek to enforce the law by filing a civil action against the plaintiff. The Court's answer: let the law go into effect until a plaintiff can successfully challenge it. (Again, it's not at all clear that a plaintiff could ever challenge it, given the highly unusual way the law works.)

Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan each dissented, and joined each other, except that Chief Justice Roberts didn't join the dissents of the other three. Chief Justice Roberts "would grant preliminary relief to preserve the status quo ante." Justice Breyer argued that "[t]he very bringing into effect of Texas's law may well threaten the applicants with imminent and serious harm" sufficient to allow the Court to grant relief. Justice Sotomayor argued that the Court "silently acquiesced in a State's enactment of a law that flouts nearly 50 years of federal precedent." "Because the Court's failure to act rewards tactics designed to avoid judicial review and inflicts significant harm on the applicants and on women seeking abortions in Texas, I dissent." Justice Kagan argued that the Court improperly took this extraordinary step without full briefing and argument, on the shadow docket.

September 2, 2021 in Abortion, Courts and Judging, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 27, 2021

Supreme Court Halts CDC Eviction Moratorium

The Supreme Court issued an emergency order late yesterday halting the CDC's eviction moratorium. While the ruling technically only vacates the stay of a lower court ruling striking the moratorium (and allows the government's appeal to move forward, but without a stay of the district court's ruling), it all but decides the underlying merits.

The Court said that the CDC lacked statutory authority to impose the moratorium. The applicable provision, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 264(a), states:

The Surgeon General, with the approval of the [Secretary of Health and Human Services], is authorized to make and enforce such regulations as in his judgment are necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the States or possessions, or from one State or possession into any other State or possession. For purposes of carrying out and enforcing such regulations, the Surgeon General may provide for such inspection, fumigation, disinfection, sanitation, pest extermination, destruction of animals or articles found to be so infected or contaminated as to be sources of dangerous infection to human beings, and other measures, as in his judgment may be necessary.

In short, the Court said that the moratorium exceeded this authority, because it wasn't in line with the kind of specific examples in the second sentence. In other words, it read the second sentence as limiting the authority in the first sentence. It said that if the statute authorized the moratorium, then it could authorize nearly any measure--"a breathtaking amount of authority"--and this goes too far. The Court also said that Congress was "on notice" but failed to enact legislation to specifically reauthorize the moratorium. (Congress had previously specifically authorized the moratorium in COVID relief legislation, but that authorization lapsed, leaving only Section 264(a) as possible authority for the moratorium.)

The Court said that "[t]he applicants not only have a substantial likelihood of success on the merits--it is difficult to imagine them losing."

Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan. He read the statute just the opposite--that the first sentence plainly authorizes a moratorium, and that the second sentence, if anything, only expands the authority in the first sentence. Justice Breyer also focused on the moratorium's tailoring (geographic and otherwise), and the harm that would likely result to tenants under the Court's holding.

The ruling halts the CDC's eviction moratorium. But Congress could change this by specifically reauthorizing the CDC to issue a moratorium.

The ruling does nothing to state and local moratoriums; it only addresses the CDC's moratorium.

August 27, 2021 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fifth Circuit Tosses Case Challenging Removal of Confederate Monument

The Fifth Circuit dismissed a case challenging San Antonio's removal of a monument of a confederate soldier for lack of standing. The ruling ends the challenge. (The statue is already gone.)

The case, Albert Sidney Johnston v. San Antonio, arose when the city removed a confederate monument in a public park. ASJ sued, arguing that the removal violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The court held that ASJ lacked standing. It recognized that ASJ is the successor organization to the Barnard E. Bee chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which erected the monument in the first place. But it said that ASJ had no property interest in the public park (because "the land was generally inaliable and unassignable") and no right to use the land; and therefore the organization couldn't allege a harm under the First or Fourteenth Amendments.

August 27, 2021 in Cases and Case Materials, Due Process (Substantive), First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Sixth Circuit Upholds Michigan Schools Mask Mandate Against Free Exercise, Equal Protection Claims

The Sixth Circuit yesterday upheld Michigan's mask mandate in schools against free exercise and equal protection challenges. The mandate expired since the lawsuit began, however, so the ruling only means that Michigan didn't violate the Constitution in implementing the mandate, and that it (and other jurisdictions in the Sixth Circuit) can do it again.

The case, Resurrection School v. Hertel, tested the Michigan Department of Health and Human Service requirement that all persons five years of age and older wear a mask in indoor public settings, including while attending public and private K-12 schools. The requirement contained certain exceptions for eating and drinking, for those "engaging in a religious service," for those who have health conditions that restrict their mask wearing, and others. Resurrection sued, arguing that the mandate violated free exercise and equal protection, among other claims.

While the case was pending, the Department rescinded the mask requirement. The Sixth Circuit nevertheless ruled that the case wasn't moot under the voluntary-cessation and capable-of-repetition-but-evading-review exceptions.

On the merits, however, the court rejected the plaintiffs' claims. The court ruled that the mask requirement was a religiously neutral law of general applicability, and easily satisfied rational basis review. As to religious neutrality, the court declined to look outside the schools for a secular comparator to religious schools (like gyms or movie theaters, as some courts have done), which might've demonstrated that the Department was targeting religious schools; instead, it said that the mask requirement treated religious schools exactly as it treated secular schools--the relevant comparator here.

Identifying a comparable secular activity for religious schools other than a public or private nonreligious school is difficult. Schools educating students in grades K-5 are unique in bringing together students not yet old enough to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in an indoor setting and every day. Accordingly, the proper comparable secular activity in this case remains public and private nonreligious schools.

Even under this broader conception of comparable secular activity, the [Department] orders are not so riddled with secular exceptions as to fail to be neutral and generally applicable. . . .

The court also rejected the plaintiffs' equal protection and substantive due process claims, holding that these were merely repackaged free exercise claims.

August 26, 2021 in Cases and Case Materials, Equal Protection, Free Exercise Clause, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Ninth Circuit Declines to Halt LA's Eviction Moratorium under Contracts Clause

The Ninth Circuit denied a landlord association a preliminary injunction against Los Angeles's eviction moratorium, imposed in response to COVID. The court ruled that the landlords failed to demonstrate that they were likely to succeed on their Contracts Clause claim.

This appears to be the first appeals court ruling on an eviction moratorium under the Contracts Clause. Recall that the Supreme Court recently ruled against New York's eviction pause for self-certified hardship sufferers. But that case was under the Due Process Clause, not the Contracts Clause.

Neither case necessarily speaks to the validity of the CDC's moratorium. That's because opponents of the CDC's moratorium have raised a different claim--that the CDC lacked authority to impose it.

The case, Apartment Association v. City of Los Angeles, tested LA's eviction moratorium, which, among other things, restricted landlords' ability to evict tenants who suffered a COVID-related hardship. A landlord association sued, arguing that the moratorium violated the Contracts Clause, among other things. The association sought a preliminary injunction, but the district court denied the motion, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. (While the association raised other claims, the Ninth Circuit ruling only addressed the Contracts Clause, because that's the only basis on which the association appealed.)

The court applied the two-part framework most recently articulated in Sveen v. Melin (2018). The court assumed without deciding that the association satisfied the first part--that the moratorium was a substantial impairment of a contractual relationship. Even if, the court said that the association failed to meet the second part--that the moratorium was an inappropriate or unreasonable way to achieve a significant and legitimate public purpose. The court wrote that "[t]he City fairly ties the moratorium to its stated goal of preventing displacement from homes, which the City reasonably explains can exacerbate the public health-related problems stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic."

The court rejected the association's effort to shoehorn a requirement into the Contracts Clause application to eviction moratoriums that would require that landlords receive reasonable rent during the period of the moratorium. The court said that the association ground this claim in earlier and outdated pre-Blaisdell caselaw that no longer guides the Court's approach to the Contracts Clause, and, in any event, those cases don't require that landlords receive reasonable rent during a moratorium. (Reasonable rent is a factor in the analysis, but it's not determinative.)

August 25, 2021 in Cases and Case Materials, Contract Clause, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Supreme Court Denies Biden Administration Effort to Halt MPP Pending Appeal

The Supreme Court denied the Biden Administration's request for a stay pending appeal of a lower court order directing the Biden Administration to reinstate the Migrant Protection Protocols program initiated by the Trump Administration. We posted on the lower court's order here.

The ruling means that the Biden Administration must send immigrants along the southern border to Mexico pending their asylum and deportation proceedings, consistent with the MPP, pending the Administration's appeal of the district court's order.

The ruling is a blow to the Biden Administration's effort to halt the controversial program. And while it's only preliminary--the ruling technically only orders the Biden Administration to reinstate the MPP program pending the Administration's appeal on the merits--it also doesn't bode well for the Administration. The very brief order stated that the Administration "failed to show a likelihood of success on the claim that the memorandum rescinding the Migrant Protection Protocols was not arbitrary and capricious." (In support, the Court cited Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of University of California, in which the Court rejected the Trump Administration's effort to rescind DACA as arbitrary and capricious in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.)

Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan indicated that they would have granted the Administration's motion for a stay, but they didn't say why.

August 25, 2021 in Cases and Case Materials, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 23, 2021

Fourth Circuit Says Fed Courts Can't Hear State Claims of Teacher Fired for Using Wrong Pronouns for Student

The Fourth Circuit on Friday ruled that the federal courts lacked jurisdiction to hear a case of a Virginia teacher who was fired for using an incorrect pronoun for a student. The ruling means that the teacher's claims stay in the Virginia state courts.

The case, Vlaming v. West Point School Board, arose when teacher Peter Vlaming was fired for refusing to use a male pronoun for a student who recently gender-transitioned to male. Vlaming sued in Virginia state court, arguing that his termination violated state constitutional due process, free speech, and free exercise, and state statutory rights--all state claims. The Board moved to remove the case to federal court, arguing that Vlaming's complaint raised federal Title IX issues (because Title IX compelled the Board to take action against Vlaming), and that Vlaming's state constitutional claims turned on the parallel federal constitutional provisions, because Virginia interprets these state constitutional provisions in lock step with the federal Constitution.

The Fourth Circuit rejected the arguments. It ruled that a federal defense alone (here, Title IX) can't create federal jurisdiction where the complaint alleges no federal jurisdiction, and that Virginia's practice of interpreting its constitution in lock step with the federal Constitution can't create federal jurisdiction, because Virginia isn't required to interpret its constitution in this way, and it might not in any given case (including this one).

The ruling means that the federal courts won't hear the case. But Vlaming and the Board can make their arguments (including the Board's Title IX defense) when it proceeds in state court.

August 23, 2021 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Federalism, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Arizona Supreme Court Says High-Income Tax is Subject to Education Expenditure Clause

The Arizona Supreme Court ruled that an income tax surcharge on high-income earners, the proceeds of which go to schools, is subject to the education expenditure caps in the state constitutional Education Expenditure Clause. The ruling will likely sharply limit the amount of tax-surcharge revenue that can go to the schools, sharply limiting the voter initiative that created the mechanism in the first place.

The case, Fann v. State of Arizona, tests the constitutionality of Prop 208, a 2020 voter initiative that imposes an income tax surcharge on high-income earners to provide direct funding to the schools. Prop 208 imposes a 3.5 percent surcharge on high-income earners, places those funds in a "student support and safety fund," and requires the fund to distribute the revenue to school districts and charter schools through "grants."

High-income earners sued, arguing that the provision violates the state constitutional Education Expenditure Clause on its face. This Clause, adopted by Arizona voters in 1980, sets an "aggregate expenditure limitation" for each Arizona school district. Put simply, it creates a cap on educational expenditures for each district. The provision contains an exception, however, for "grants, gifts, aid or contributions of any type except amounts received directly or indirectly in lieu of taxes received directly or indirectly from any private agency or organization, or any individual." The plaintiffs' challenge, therefore, raises the question whether Prop 208 is really a "grant" program.

The court ruled that it's not. "Considering the context of the Grant Exception, and in light of canons of construction, we conclude the more plausible reading of the Grant Exception is that the language 'received directly or indirectly from any private agency or organization, or any individual' modifies the entire sentence and limits the word 'grants' to private, non-governmental voluntary contributions." The court ruled that Prop 208 is facially unconstitutional insofar as it "incorrectly characterizes the allocated monies" to circumvent the Education Expenditure Clause and "to the extent allocated revenues exceed the expenditure limit set by the Education Expenditure Clause."

The court remanded the case to determine "whether such payments will in fact exceed the constitutional expenditure limitation." But it gave a clue as to how this'll all come out:

if the expenditure limit remains at current levels, Prop. 208's projected $827 million in revenues will far outpace its permissible spending, even accounting for Prop. 208 expenditures that are not subject to the expenditure limit. Furthermore, the EEC projects that the expenditure limit amount will decrease by 4.6%, or approximately $300,000,000. These facts strongly suggest that Prop. 208 will produce far more revenue than it can constitutionally spend.

The court also held that Prop 208 did not violate the state constitutional Tax Enactment Clause. That Clause says that an "Act that provides for a net increase in state revenues" has to get a super-majority in each house and the governor's signature to become effective. The court said that the Clause doesn't apply to voter initiatives like Prop 208, however, because a voter initiative isn't an "Act": the legislature enacts "Acts," while voter initiatives are "measures."

August 22, 2021 in Cases and Case Materials, News, Opinion Analysis, State Constitutional Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Tenth Circuit Strikes Portions of Kansas Farm Animal Protection Act under First Amendment

The Tenth Circuit ruled that three part of the Kansas Farm Animal and Field Crop and Research Facilities Protection Act violated free speech. The ruling enjoins the government from enforcing those provisions.

The case, Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Kelly, tests three part of the Act, which, as a general matter criminalizes certain actions directed at an animal facility without effective consent of the owner of the facility and with intent to damage the enterprise of the facility. ALDF sued, arguing that the Act violated free speech, because ALDF investigators sometimes lie about their association with ALDF in order to get jobs at the facilities under cover, and would therefore violate the Act.

The Tenth Circuit agreed. The court examined three parts of the Act: subsection (b), which forbids acquiring or exercising control over an animal facility without effective consent of the owner and with intent to damage the enterprise; subsection (c), which forbids recording, attempting to record, or trespassing to record on an animal facility's property without effective consent of the owner and with intent to damage the enterprise; and subsection (d), which forbids trespassing on an animal facility without effective consent of the owner and with intent to damage the enterprise. The court ruled that these were viewpoint-based restrictions on speech (because they each require the "intent to damage the enterprise," as opposed, for example, to laud the enterprise), and subject to strict scrutiny. The court said that Kansas didn't even bother to try to justify the provisions under strict scrutiny, and therefore they failed.

Judge Hartz dissented, arguing, among other things, that property owners have a right to exclude that the majority's approach ignores; "that a fraudulently obtained consent to enter another's property, particular the type of entry desired by Plaintiffs, is not protected by the First Amendment"; and that the court should've excised any offending elements of the Act rather than ruling them unconstitutional.

August 21, 2021 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ninth Circuit Tosses OAN's Defamation Suit Against Rachel Maddow

The Ninth Circuit ruled this week that OAN failed to state a case for defamation against MSNBC host Rachel Maddow for stating that OAN "really literally is paid Russian propaganda." The ruling ends OAN's defamation suit.

The case, Herring Networks, Inc. v. Maddow, arose when Maddow ran a segment on OAN reporter Kristen Rouz, who, according to a story in the Daily Beast, also wrote stories for pay for Sputnik. At one point during the longer segment, Maddow said, "In this case, the most obsequiously pro-Trump right wing news outlet in America really literally is paid Russian propaganda." Herring then sued for defamation, and Maddow moved to strike the complaint under California's anti-SLAPP statute.

The Ninth Circuit ruled for Maddow. The court examined the broad context of the statement, the limited context of the statute, and the ability to determine the truth or falsity of the statement and concluded that it simply wasn't a statement of fact that could support a defamation claim:

In sum, two of the factors outlined in [circuit precedent]--the general context and the specific context of the contested statement--negate the impression that the statement is an assertion of objective fact. While the third factor [the ability to determine the truth or falsity of the statement] tilts in the other direction, we conclude that Maddow's contested statement fits within "the 'rhetorical hyperbole' [that] has traditionally added much to the discourse of our Nation."

August 21, 2021 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Court Temporarily Stays District Judge Order in MPP Case

In an order by Justice Alito, the Supreme Court late yesterday temporarily stayed the district court injunction directing the Biden Administration to reinstate former President Trump's MPP policy until Tuesday at midnight. The brief order will allow the full Court to consider the Biden Administration's emergency application for a stay pending appeal.

Recall that the district court issued a permanent, nationwide injunction directing the Biden Administration to reinstate the MPP policy and send certain immigrants to Mexico pending their deportation proceedings. The Administration sought a stay of the injunction pending appeal, but the Fifth Circuit declined. The Administration then sought an emergency stay at the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court's order temporarily stays the injunction until Tuesday. It also directs the plaintiffs in the case to file their response to the Administration's emergency application by 5 p.m. on Tuesday. A Court order will presumably follow before midnight Tuesday.

All this is still preliminary, though: the Biden Administration is still pursuing its appeal on the merits to the Fifth Circuit. The Court's ruling late yesterday only means that the Biden Administration need not reinstate the MPP policy pending its appeal of the district court order until Tuesday, and perhaps later, depending on what the Court says.

The Court's docket for the case is here.

August 21, 2021 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fifth Circuit Rejects First Amendment Retaliation Claim for Union Activities

The Fifth Circuit earlier this week rejected free-speech and free-association claims of a public employee, who was also a public-union leader, after he was terminated for performance reasons. The court also rejected the plaintiffs' class-of-one equal protection claim.

The case, United Steel v. Anderson, arose when Sergio Castilleja, a community service officer for the Bexar County Community Supervision and Corrections Department, was terminated for violating Department rules and other performance issues, including using Department equipment for union activities. But prior to his termination, Castilleja had been elected president of the Bexar County Probation Officers Association, and, in that role, oversaw a no-confidence petition against the Department chief, Jarvis Anderson. When he was fired, Castilleja's children and various unions sued, arguing that the Department terminated him for his union activities in violation of the First Amendment and that the Department treated him differently than officers in other unions in violation of equal protection.

The Fifth Circuit rejected the claims. The court ruled that the Department provided a legitimate, non-speech and non-association reason for his termination--his performance deficiencies--and that the plaintiffs failed to show that this reason was a pretext for reprisal for protected speech and association. The court also ruled that the unions' equal protection argument failed, because under Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture class-of-one equal protection claims (where one person alleges unequal treatment as compared to similarly situated persons) don't apply to discretionary public-employment decisions.

August 21, 2021 in Association, Cases and Case Materials, Equal Protection, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 20, 2021

Fifth Circuit Strikes Fee for Latex Clubs

The Fifth Circuit ruled that a $5 per person fee for "latex clubs" in Texas violated free speech and due process. The ruling means that state authorities can't enforce the fee against sexually oriented clubs where dancers wear opaque latex breast coverings and shorts.

The case, Texas Entertainment Association v. Hegar, arose when Texas enacted a "sexually oriented business" fee that imposed a $5 charge per customer on businesses that serve alcohol in the presence of nude entertainment. In response, some sexually oriented businesses required dancers to wear opaque latex breast coverings and shorts. The gambit allowed these "latex clubs" to dodge the $5 fee for a good eight years, until the Texas comptroller issued a rule that excluded latex from the definition of "clothing" under the law. The rule meant that latex clubs now had to pay the fee.

The TEA, which represents sexually oriented businesses in Texas, sued, arguing that the comptroller's move violated free speech, due process, and equal protection. The Fifth Circuit agreed, except as to equal protection.

The court ruled that the comptroller's redefinition was a content-based restriction on speech (and not content-neutral), because the comptroller produced no evidence that the redefinition served any non-speech purpose (like reducing the secondary effects of latex clubs). (The court declined to shoehorn the state's initial asserted interest behind the $5 fee--reducing secondary effects--into the comptroller's decision, more than eight years later, and based on no evidence.) The court applied strict scrutiny, and ruled that the comptroller's action failed.

The court also ruled that the comptroller's action violated due process. The court said that the comptroller previously declined to impose the fee on latex clubs--indeed, that the comptroller told one club that "everything was good"--and upset the latex clubs' "settled expectation that they would not be subject to" the fee.

Finally, the court ruled that the action didn't violate equal protection. The court said that latex clubs were more like nude dancing establishments (which were already subject to the fee), and not like sports bars (which were not). Because the move did not treat similarly situated businesses differently (latex clubs aren't similar to sports bars), the court ruled that it didn't violate equal protection.

August 20, 2021 in Cases and Case Materials, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)