Saturday, June 15, 2019
The Office of Legal Counsel late yesterday issued an opinion giving its reasons why the Treasury Department doesn't have to comply with House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal's request, authorized by federal law, for President Trump's tax returns. We last posted on the controversy here.
The opinion is the culmination of breathtaking efforts by the Trump Administration to protect President Trump's tax returns from the Committee. Why breathtaking? Because federal law says that Treasury "shall furnish" (as in must furnish) the returns upon the request of the Committee Chair.
26 U.S.C. Sec. 6103 says that Treasury "shall furnish" tax-return information "[u]pon written request from the chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means of the House of Representatives." Chair Neal issued the requisite written request, stating that he sought the returns in order to investigate how the IRS audits presidents' tax returns. So far, Treasury declined to turn them over, saying that Chair Neal's request lacks a "legitimate legislative purpose," and that the Office of Legal Counsel would soon elaborate. Yesterday's opinion is that elaboration.
OLC's opinion riffs on Treasury's well worn claim--that Neal's request for the returns doesn't serve a "legitimate legislative purpose," and therefore Treasury can ignore the mandatory language (quoted above) in federal law.
In short, the opinion says that while Chair Neal claimed that he sought the returns to investigate how the IRS conducts audits of presidents (a legitimate legislative purpose), Chair Neal's real reason for requesting the returns is to release them to the public--and that's not a legitimate legislative purpose. The opinion draws on statements by Neal and other Democrats in the prior Congress suggesting that they'd like to publicize President Trump's tax returns when they gain a majority in the House. The memo says that this creates a mismatch between Chair Neal's stated reason for requesting the returns (to investigate how the IRS conducts audits) and his real reason (simply to publicize the President's returns).
The opinion cites several reasons why OLC believes that Chair Neal's stated reasons aren't his real reasons. First, OLC says that Chair Neal didn't also request other information, like IRS audit procedures. Next, it says that Chair Neal requested six years of the President's returns, even though "only the last two years correspond to his time in office." Third, OLC argues that the request focuses on just one taxpayer, President Trump, and not other Presidents and Vice-Presidents. OLC also notes that "the Chairman's request appeared to be 'perfectly tailored' to accomplish the Chairman's long-standing and avowed goal, namely 'to obtain and expose the President's tax returns.'"
Given that the courts are quite deferential to Congress in determining the scope of its own investigation authority, you might wonder where the administration gets off second-guessing Congress's motives. That is: Why does the administration think it can be less deferential to Congress regarding Congress's reasons for conducting an investigation? Here's part of the reason:
Allowing a congressional committee to dictate when Treasury must keep tax information confidential and when it must disclose such information would impermissibly intrude on executive power by ceding control to the Committee over ensuring that section 6103 is implemented in a manner consistent with the constitutional limitations.
Here's the rest:
Separated from the democratic process, the federal courts are not well equipped to second-guess the action of the political branches by close scrutiny of their motivations. . . .
These same limitations do not apply to the Executive Branch, which operates as a politically accountable check on the Legislative Branch. The Founders separated the President from the Congress, giving him "a separate political consistency, to which he alone was responsible," and "the means to resist legislative encroachment" upon his duty to executive the laws. The head of the Executive Branch, who is elected separately from Congress, ultimately must answer to the people for the manner in which he exercises his authority. The separation of powers would be dramatically impaired were the Executive required to implement the laws by accepting the legitimacy of any reason proffered by Congress, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. In order to prevent the "special danger . . . of congressional usurpation of Executive Branch functions," we believe that Treasury must determine, for itself, whether the Committee's stated reason reflects its true one or is merely a pretext.
Next step: Look for the Committee to seek to enforce Chair Neal's request in court.
Friday, June 14, 2019
D.C. Circuit Finds Federal Policy Barring Abortion for Unaccompanied Immigrant Minors Unconstitutional
In its opinion in Jane Doe v. Azar, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed the trial court's injunction against the federal government's 2017 policy banning abortion access for any unaccompanied immigrant minor in federal custody. As the per curiam opinion for the majority explained:
The claim of one minor in this case brings the policy’s breadth and operation into stark relief. She had been raped in her country of origin. After her arrival here and her placement in government custody, she learned she was pregnant as a result of the rape. She repeatedly asked to obtain a pre-viability abortion, to no avail. She remained in government custody as an unaccompanied minor because there was no suitable sponsor to whom she could be released. Nor was there any viable prospect of her returning to her country of origin: indeed, she eventually received a grant of asylum (and lawful status here) due to her well-founded fear of persecution in her country of origin. Still, the government sought to compel this minor to carry her rape-induced pregnancy to term.
She is one of the named plaintiffs who brought this challenge to the government’s policy on behalf of a class of pregnant unaccompanied minors. The district court granted a preliminary injunction in favor of the plaintiffs, and the government now appeals. We initially agree with the district court that the case is not moot, and we find no abuse of discretion in the court’s certification of a plaintiffs’ class consisting of pregnant unaccompanied minors in the government’s custody. On the merits, we sustain the district court’s preliminary injunction in principal part.
The bulk of the per curiam majority's opinion is devoted to the class action certification and mootness issues. The government contended that because the named representatives had obtained abortions, their claims were moot, and rendered them inadequate class representatives (both because of the mootness and because not all pregnant minors would choose abortions). The government further contended that other requirements for class certification were not met and that the class should be narrowed so that joinder of individual plaintiffs seeking an abortion would be possible. The majority found the district court did not abuse its discretion in certifying the class.
On the merits of the constitutional claim, the majority stated it was clear that there is a constitutional right to access abortion adjudicated under the undue burden standard and that it extends to minors, although there can be a parental consent requirement if there is a judicial bypass provision. The federal government agreed that a state could not simply ban a minor's access to abortion, but how then, the opinion asked, can the federal government defend the abortion ban policy of the ORR, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a program in the Department of Health and Human Services, bears responsibility for the “care and placement” of unaccompanied immigrant minors (known as UACs, "Unaccompanied Alien Children")? The government offered three arguments, each of the which the majority rejected.
* "First, the government contends that permitting unaccompanied minors in its custody to access pre-viability abortions requires it to “facilitate” abortions, which the government says it is not obligated to do." The court, however, noted that the problem was not the government not wanting to remove barriers not of its own creation (such as poverty), but here the government creates the conditions itself: "an unaccompanied minor’s abortion hinges on ORR’s drafting and executing approval documents only because ORR itself has conditioned abortion access on its execution of approval documents." Further, the court ruled that what the government deems the “facilitation” that it wants to steer clear of giving to an unaccompanied minor, "is something it willingly gives to all others in federal custody."
* Second, the government asserts that unaccompanied minors may voluntarily depart the country and that the ban thus does not impose any cognizable burden. But, the court noted that"voluntary departure" is not freely available, but is at government discretion, and actually operates as a "second government veto." Moreover, even if the government were to grant a voluntary departure upon request, there is no indication of how long that process might take, and requires the minor to abandon all other requests for relief.
* Third, the government argues that, because many unaccompanied minors are released to sponsors, banning abortions while in ORR custody does not impose an undue burden. The court found that the sponsorship argument was "ultimately no more persuasive than its voluntary-departure one. Those arguments share important parallels. In both, the central idea is that an unaccompanied minor may find herself no longer in ORR custody—either because she voluntarily departs the country or because she is released to a sponsor—in which event she would be free to access an abortion without the burden of ORR’s policy."
Thus, the majority found that the ORR policy violated the Fifth Amendment right to due process and affirmed the district court's injunction against its enforcement.
The court remanded another portion of the district court's injunction, however, on the basis that the ORR policies involved were not necessarily clear. At issue were any policies that required disclosure of pregnancy or abortion access. This issue was at times conflated with the access to abortion issue, and the court remanded so that the district court could "give a more fulsome account of its findings and conclusions in that regard."
In a dissenting opinion, Senior Circuit Judge Laurence Silberman devoted most of his opinion to the class certification issue, but on the merits relied heavily on the dissenting opinion of then-judge and now-Justice Kavanaugh in Garza v. Hargan (2017), concluding that the majority is "endorsing abortion on demand – at least as far as the federal Government is concerned." Thus, the stage is set for the federal government's petition for certiorari.
The Fourth Circuit this week rejected an as-applied Commerce Clause challenge to the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. The divided court (2-1) ruled that the Act, which criminalizes certain hate-crimes based on sexual orientation, fell within Congress's Commerce Clause authority.
As the court noted, this is the first federal appeals court ruling on "[w]hether the Hate Crimes Act may be constitutionally applied to an unarmed assault of a victim engaged in commercial activity at his place of work . . . ."
The case, United States v. Hill, turned on the Act's "jurisdictional element," which requires a commercial connection--but, importantly, by its plain terms not necessarily a "foreign" or "inter-state" commercial connection. It's that lack of a textual "foreign" or "inter-state" commercial connection that divided the majority and dissent. The majority held that the jurisdictional element, as applied to this case, fell within Congress's Commerce Clause authority, even without a specific textual required a "foreign" or "inter-state" commercial connection. The dissent said not.
The case arose when James Hill III physically and violently assaulted Curtis Tibbs, a co-worker at an Amazon fulfillment center, because Tibbs is gay. (Hill didn't deny this; indeed, he boasted about it.) Hill repeatedly punched Tibbs in the face, causing significant bruising, cuts, and a bloody nose. Tibbs left his shift to go to the hospital for treatment, and the facility shut down the area of the assault for 30 to 45 minutes to clean blood off the floor.
Because Tibbs worked as a "packer," preparing goods for interstate shipment, and because Virginia doesn't have a hate-crimes law that criminalizes assault because of sexual orientation, the federal government charged Hill under the Shepard & Byrd Act. The government relied on a "jurisdictional element" in the Act that requires that the defendant's behavior "interfere[d] with commercial or other economic activity in which the victim [was] engaged at the time of the conduct."
Hill was convicted, but the district court granted is motion for a judgment of acquittal, holding that the Act was unconstitutional as applied to Hill. The Fourth Circuit reversed.
The court ruled that the Hill's assault met the jurisdictional element (because Tibbs was packing goods for shipment in commerce), and that the jurisdictional element fell within Congress's Commerce Clause authority.
[W]hen Congress may regulate an economic or commercial activity, it also may regulate violent conduct that interferes with or affects that activity. Hence, if individuals are engaged in ongoing economic or commercial activity subject to congressional regulation--as Tibbs was at the time of the assault--then Congress also may prohibit violent crime that interferes with or affects such individuals' ongoing economic or commercial activity, including the type of bias-motivated assaults proscribed by the Hate Crimes Act.
The court rejected Hill's argument that the assault didn't have a substantial effect on commerce because the facility as a whole still met its shipments:
That Amazon was able to absorb the impact of Tibbs' absence without missing any key shipping deadlines and that the fulfillment center's performance during the shift impacted by Tibbs' assault was in-line with its performance during other shifts does not call into question this determination. On the contrary, the Supreme Court and this Court repeatedly have clarified that Congress may regulate interferences with commerce, even if the effect of the interference on interstate commerce in an individual case is "minimal." . . . .
Similarly, this Court has held that, in as-applied Commerce Clause challenges, "the relevant question . . . is not whether one particular offense has an impact on interstate commerce, but whether the class of acts proscribed has such an impact."
The court acknowledged the importance of the jurisdictional element in the case--and, by extension, to any congressional act--writing that the "Defendant has not identified any case--nor have we found any such case--in which a federal criminal statute including an interstate commerce jurisdictional element has been held to exceed Congress's authority under the Commerce Clause."
Judge Agee dissented, arguing that the jurisdictional element "does not limit the class of activities being regulated to acts that fall under Congress' Commerce Clause power" and that "the root activity . . . regulated in this case--a bias-motivated punch--is not an inherently economic activity." As to the jurisdictional element, Judge Agee argued that it is different than other jurisdictional elements in this statute and in other statutes, and that it sweeps beyond Congress's power to regulate inter-state or foreign commerce:
In contrast, [the jurisdictional element here] is a distinct outlier without an interstate or foreign commerce statutory nexus. Nor is the unrestricted phrase "commercial or other economic activity" one of the categories the Supreme Court has identified as an area Congress can regulate under its Commerce Clause power. By [the jurisdictional element's] plain terms, it contains no jurisdictional nexus to Congress' authority under the Commerce Clause that thus fails under Lopez to be a "jurisdictional element" that has "an explicit connection with or effect on interstate commerce." This textual difference is meaningful . . . .
Wednesday, June 12, 2019
President Trump today formally asserted executive privilege over documents related to the Commerce Department's addition of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. The assertion, communicated by the Commerce Department, comes after the Justice Department informed House Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings late yesterday that it would ask the President to assert executive privilege if the Committee proceeded with a contempt vote against AG William Bar and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
In yesterday's letter, Assistant AG Stephen Boyd wrote,
a limited subset of the documents is protected from disclosure by the deliberative process, attorney-client communications, or attorney work product components of executive privilege. These are the kind of materials that the Executive Branch regularly and appropriately withholds in connection with oversight matters, because the disclosure of such information would have a significant chilling effect on future deliberations among senior executive branch officials, and would compromise the confidentiality on which the Executive Branch's attorney-client relationships depend. . . .
The Committee has failed to abide by the constitutionally mandated accommodation process by declining to negotiate over the scope of the subpoenaed materials or to recognize legitimate executive branch interests, as well as by its premature decision to schedule a contempt vote. In the face of this threatened contempt vote, the Attorney General is now compelled to request that the President invoke executive privilege with respect to the materials . . . .
Accordingly, I hereby advise you that the President has asserted executive privilege over the specific subset of the documents identified by the Committee in its June 3, 2019 letter--documents that are clearly protected from disclosure by the deliberative process, attorney-client communications, or attorney work product components of executive privilege. In addition, I advise you that the President has asserted executive privilege over the balance of the Department's documents responsive to the Committee's April 2, 2019 subpoena. As the Attorney General indicated in his letter to you yesterday, this protective assertion of executive privilege ensures the President's ability to make a final decision whether to assert privilege following a full review of these materials.
Monday, June 10, 2019
The Supreme Court ruled today that federal law does not borrow state labor law on the Outer Continental Shelf. The unanimous ruling reverses the Ninth Circuit.
Given the unusual statutory provision at issue, and given the federal enclave status of the OCS, the ruling is quite narrow, based only on the particular statutory language, and does not say anything more general about the Court's preemption or federalism jurisprudence.
The case, Parker Drilling Management Services, Ltd. v. Newton, tested an unusual provision in federal law that applies to the OCS. That provision says that the laws of the adjacent state will apply to the OCS "[t]o the extent that they are applicable and not inconsistent with [federal law]." In other words, federal law applies on the OCS, and federal law borrows state law when it's "applicable and not inconsistent with" federal law.
So what happens when state law is more generous to workers than federal law? Does the state law apply (as it would under ordinary preemption analysis), or does the federal law apply?
A unanimous Supreme Court said that federal law applies. Justice Thomas, writing for the Court, noted first that the OCS is a federal enclave, where only federal law applies. (Remember, under the Act federal law borrows state law as its own.) He said that in that situation, ordinary preemption analysis doesn't apply; instead, the Court needs to determine what the phrase "applicable and not inconsistent" means in a location where the default is that only federal law applies.
Taken together, these provisions convince us that state laws can be "applicable and not inconsistent" with federal law under [the Act] only if federal law does not address the relevant issue. As we have said before, [the Act] makes apparent "that federal law is 'exclusive' in its regulation of [the OCS], and that state law is adopted only as surrogate federal law." [The Act] extends all federal law to the OCS, and instead of also extending state law writ large, it borrows only certain state laws. These laws, in turn, are declared to be federal law and are administered by federal officials. Given the primacy of federal law on the OCS and the limited role of state law, it would make little sense to treat the OCS as a mere extension of the adjacent State, where state law applies unless it conflicts with federal law. That type of pre-emption analysis is applicable only where the overlapping, dual jurisdiction of the Federal and State Governments makes it necessary to decide which law takes precedence. But the OCS is not, and never was, part of a State, so state law has never applies of its own force.
Friday, June 7, 2019
In its unanimous opinion in State of Washington v. Arlene's Flowers, the Washington Supreme Court concluded there was no First Amendment infringement when the state found Arlene's Flowers violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), by refusing to sell wedding flowers to a same-sex couple.
Recall that in June 2018, the United States Supreme Court without opinion, in Arlene's Flowers v. Washington, granted the petition for writ of certiorari, vacated the judgment of the Washington Supreme Court, and remanded the case for consideration in light of its decision earlier than month in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Comm'n. Given the holding in Masterpiece Cakeshop that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, or one specific commissioner, exhibited "hostility" to the cakemaker in that case, the Washington Supreme Court was now tasked with determining whether there was a similar hostility towards the religion of the florist in Arlene's Flowers, Baronnelle Stutzman, and if so, applying strict scrutiny.
The Washington Supreme Court, on page 2 of its 76 page opinion, proclaimed: "We now hold that the answer to the Supreme Court's question is no; the adjudicatory bodies that considered this case did not act with religious animus when they ruled that the florist and her corporation violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination . . . ."
The Washington Supreme Court's lengthy opinion admittedly includes passages from its 2017 opinion which thoroughly discussed and applied the First Amendment standards, but it also carefully delves into the question of government hostility toward religion. The court found irrelevant one contested incident involving the Attorney General of Washington which occurred after the Washington Supreme Court's 2017 opinion, noting that the issue was one of adjudicatory animus and not executive branch animus; any claim that there was selective prosecution lacked merit. The Washington Supreme Court also rejected Stutzman's claim that the scope of the injunction in the 2017 opinion mandated that Stutzman "personally attend and participate in same-sex weddings."
The Washington Supreme Court's opinion concludes that "After careful review on remand, we are confident that the courts resolved this dispute with tolerance, and we therefore find no reason to change our original judgment in light of Masterpiece Cakeshop. We again affirm the trial court's rulings."
It is a solid well-reasoned unanimous opinion, but given this hard-fought and well-financed litigation, it's likely that Arlene's Flowers will again petition the United States Supreme Court for certiorari.
image: Vincent Van Gogh, Twelve Sunflowers in a Vase, circa 1887, via.
June 7, 2019 in Courts and Judging, Family, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Gender, Opinion Analysis, Recent Cases, Religion, Sexual Orientation, State Constitutional Law, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)
The Seventh Circuit this week upheld a signatures requirement to get on the ballot in the Cook County sheriff's race.
The case, Acevedo v. Cook County Officers Electoral Board, arose when Acevedo, a would-be candidate for Cook County sheriff, failed to obtain the necessary signatures of 0.5% of qualified voters in Cook County. Acevedo noted that the signatures formula for Cook County sheriff required him to obtain more signatures (0.5% of qualified voters equals 8,236 signatures) than candidates for statewide offices (who must get only 5,000 signatures). He claimed that the signatures requirement for Cook County therefore violated strict scrutiny (because the lower signatures requirement for statewide offices showed that the government could meet its interest in a less burdensome way).
We have stressed before that "[w]hat is ultimately important is not the absolute or relative number of signatures required by whether a 'reasonably diligent candidate could be expected to be able to meet the requirements and gain a place on the ballot.'" If the burden imposed is slight, Anderson and Burdick make clear that no justification beyond the state's interest in orderly and fair elections is necessary--even if less burdensome alternatives are available.
The ruling ends this challenge and upholds the signatures requirement for Cook County sheriff.
Wednesday, June 5, 2019
Check out the latest podcast from Prof. Harry Litman's outstanding Talking Feds, High Crimes and Misdemeanors, featuring Prof. Laurence Tribe, Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, and Congressman Jamie Raskin. The high-power panel talks, well, high crimes and misdemeanors.
In an Order in United States v. Rundo, United States District Judge Cormac J. Carney for the Central District of California dismissed an indictment against white supremacists Robert Rundo, Robert Bowman, and Aaron Eason, members of "Rise Above Movement" (RAM), concluding that the Anti-Riot Act, 18 U.S.C. §2101 violates the First Amendment as overbroad.
As Judge Carney explained in his relatively brief opinion, the Anti-Riot Act provides that:
Whoever travels in interstate or foreign commerce or uses any facility of interstate or foreign commerce, including, but not limited to, the mail, telegraph, telephone, radio, or television, with intent –
(1) to incite a riot; or
(2) to organize, promote, encourage, participate in, or carry on a riot; or
(3) to commit any act of violence in furtherance of a riot; or
(4) to aid or abet any person in inciting or participating in or carrying on a riot or committing any act of violence in furtherance of a riot;
and who either during the course of any such travel or use or thereafter performs or attempts to perform any other overt act for any purpose specified in subparagraph [(1)–(4)] . . . [s]hall be fined under this title, or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.
Moreover, after quoting the statute's definition to riot, Judge Carney explained,
to simplify, the Anti-Riot Act defines “riot” in two ways. A riot is a public disturbance involving acts of violence, committed by at least one person in a group, which results in property damage or personal injury. This first definition coincides with the common understanding of a riot––for instance, a crowd taking to the streets and smashing windows of a business. A riot also includes a public disturbance involving the threat of violence, by persons in a group, so long as at least one person could immediately act upon the threat. This second definition, for example, would apply to a group threatening to break the windows of a business, while the group is outside the business and holding rocks in their hands.
Yet, most troubling for Judge Carney was his interpretation that the statute "also criminalizes acts taken long before any crowd gathers, or acts that have only an attenuated connection to any riot, so long as the individual acts with the required purpose. See 18 U.S.C. § 2101(a). No violence even need to occur. A defendant could be convicted for renting a car with a credit card, posting about a political rally on Facebook, or texting friends about when to meet up."
The problem for Judge Carney was that the statute has "no imminence requirement": "The Anti-Riot does not require that advocacy be directed toward inciting or producing imminent lawless action. It criminalizes advocacy even where violence or lawless action is not imminent." Thus, Judge Carney concluded that the Anti-Riot Act eviscerates the protections of speech in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969). Further, Judge Carney rejected the government's argument that the Anti-Riot Act did include an imminence requirement, characterizing this as requiring "grammatical gymnastics—and some degree of hand waving–– " which the Judge was not willing to do. Judge Carney pointed out that under the Anti-Riot Act, the statement in Hess v. Indiana (1973) ("we'll take the streets later [or again]") would be criminalized, despite the United States Supreme Court's finding that such a statement did not meet the imminence requirement.
Finally, Judge Carney found that in balancing the "social costs" of upholding the statute or "striking it down," there were other laws— including state statutes — that could protect the public from violence or public disturbances, while enforcing the Anti-Riot Act substantially infringed on the rights of free speech and freedom of assembly. And while Judge Carney explicitly mentioned not condoning the message of the white supremacists and wrote that "one person's protest might be another person's riot," invoking controversial issues today such as "abortion, Black Lives Matter, climate change, or healthcare," his opinion is sure to be discussed as protecting right-wing protest.
Tuesday, June 4, 2019
White House Counsel Pat Cipollone wrote to House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler today that the White House had instructed former staffers Hope Hicks and Annie Donaldson not to comply with Committee subpoenas for documents related to their time in the White House. The instruction is categorical.
The reasons are all too familiar, even if ill defined. Cipollone wrote,
Th[e subpoenaed documents] include White House records that remain legally protected from disclosure under longstanding constitutional principles, because they implicate significant Executive Branch confidentiality interests and executive privilege.
It's not at all clear which documents Cipollone is referring to (all? some? which?), and it's not clear how "confidentiality interests" and executive privilege apply. Cipollone writes that this spaghetti-on-the-wall approach has DOJ's concurrence. He also writes that the White House and the Committee might be able to work something out.
Absent from this latest White House effort at frustrating congressional oversight is another familiar claim: that the Committee has no "legitimate legislative purpose" in the material. Perhaps that'll come out if and when this goes to litigation.
Monday, June 3, 2019
Judge Trevor N. McFadden (D.D.C.) ruled today that the House of Representatives lacks standing to challenge President Trump's reallocation of appropriated funds to build a border wall.
The ruling deals a sharp blow to the House in this case (although one imagines it'll be appealed). But other legal challenges against the reallocation of funds are still pending. And as Judge McFadden wrote in some detail, the House has other ways to hold President Trump to account.
Recall the background: Congress declined to appropriate the full amount of money that President Trump sought for the wall; President Trump then turned to three statutory authorities, including an "emergency" authority, that he claimed authorized him to reallocate funds appropriated for other purposes for the wall; and the House sued, arguing that the reallocation violated the Appropriations Clause and federal law.
Today's ruling in U.S. House of Representatives v. Mnuchin says that the House hasn't suffered a sufficient concrete injury because of President Trump's reallocation of funds to build the wall. In particular, the court said that the House hasn't suffered a "complete nullification" of its appropriations powers, and therefore hasn't suffered a sufficient injury to support standing:
But unlike the plaintiffs in Raines, the House retains the institutional tools necessary to remedy any harm caused to this power by the Administration's actions. Its Members can, with a two-thirds majority, override the President's veto of the resolution voiding the National Emergency Declaration. They did not. It can amend appropriations laws to expressly restrict the transfer or spending of funds for a border wall under Sections 284 and 2808. Indeed, it appears to be doing so. And Congress "may always exercise its power to expand recoveries" for any private parties harmed by the Administration's actions.
More still, the House can hold hearings on the Administration's spending decisions.
You might wonder why the (Republican) House had standing to challenge President Obama's decision to reallocate funds for the cost-sharing reduction payments under the Affordable Care Act, but the (Democratic) House has no standing to challenge President Trump's reallocation of funds for the wall.
I don't have a good answer, and I'm not sure the court in today's case does, either.
Judge McFadden seems to say that standing in the cost-sharing case was based on the House's constitutional (Appropriations Clause) claim, whereas this case looked more like a statutory claim (in which the House wouldn't have standing). But that seems weak: Judge McFadden himself says that the distinction between a constitutional claim and statutory claim is murky; and the constitutional claim in this case seems as strong, or stronger, than the constitutional claim in the cost-sharing case. Judge McFadden also says that allowing the House to sue here would also allow the House to sue over "every instance of the Executive's statutory non-compliance." But that's plainly not the case.
(Maybe you can understand the court's analysis better than I can. Take a crack: it's at pages 14 to 15 of the enclosed version of the opinion.)
Friday, May 31, 2019
Responding to Justice Thomas's concurring opinion from a denial of certiorari in Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana, legal commentator Imani Gandy (pictured) writes When It Comes to Birth Control and Eugenics, Clarence Thomas Gets It All Wrong.
Specifically, Gandy takes on the history of Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), who she states is not necessarily a present-day "infallible feminist hero" and certainly had the same abelist views that the Court credited in Buck v. Bell.
But, on the subject of race, Gandy writes:
The framing of Thomas’ concurrence, however, suggests that she [Sanger] did want to reduce the Black population. This framing extends to his description of the Negro Project, which Sanger created in conjunction with some of the most prominent Black civil rights leaders of the time—Franklin Frazier, Walter White, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Mary McLeod Bethune, and W.E.B DuBois—in order to bring birth control to the South. Thomas writes as if her mere advocacy for birth control was in and of itself racial eugenics. And he virtually ignores that Black women in the South wanted birth control and had taken their reproduction into their own hands since the days of enslavement, when women would self-induce abortions or even kill their newborns in order to save them from a life of slavery.
Gandy's commentary also provides an interesting critique of Thomas's use of a Sanger quotation by providing larger context. Gandy writes: "What Thomas leaves out is the very next sentence that Sanger wrote . . ." and thus invites the reader to think more deeply about the history of birth control.
Predictably, Thomas's concurring opinion is provoking other commentaries, but Gandy's piece is among the most insightful.
Thursday, May 30, 2019
The Ninth Circuit ruled today that a lower court had jurisdiction over environmental organizations' lawsuit against the United States Forest Service under the "citizen suit" provision in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
The ruling reverses the lower court decision on this point and remands the case for further proceedings related to the merits.
The case, Center for Biological Diversity v. United States Forest Service, started when the Center and others sued the USFS for its failure to address the use of lead ammunition by hunters in Arizona's Kaibab National Forest. According to the plaintiffs, scavenger species, including the California condor, suffer from lead poisoning after they ingest lead ammunition left in animal carcasses by hunters. The Center sought declaratory and injunctive relief pursuant to the RCRA's citizen-suit provision.
The district court dismissed the case, ruling that it amounted to a request for an advisory opinion. The Ninth Circuit reversed.
The Ninth Circuit held that the case was not an advisory opinion. The court said that the Center's challenge presents a "genuine adversary issue between the parties," and that "a ruling in the Center's favor would require USFS to mitigate in some manner--not necessarily by banning the use of lead ammunition in the Kaibab--the harm caused by spent lead ammunition, thereby leading to a change in USFS's operation of the Kaibab."
The court rejected the lower court's conclusion that any judicial ruling would amount only to a recommendation. That's because the RCRA specifically grants the courts jurisdictions over this type of claim and relief, including jurisdiction "to restrain any person who has contributed or who is contributing to [a substantial endangerment to health or the environment], to order such person to take such other action as may be necessary, or both." The court also rejected the lower court's conclusion that any order "would be an improper intrusion into the domain of the USFS." The court said that this is exactly what the RCRA authorizes, and that this position, if accepted, "would preclude courts from issuing injunctions against expert administrative agencies, which, of course, we regularly do."
The court also rejected the USFS's argument that the courts should "declin[e] jurisdiction out of deference to the policy choices of the other branches of the federal government." The court said that the RCRA grants it jurisdiction, and that it has a "virtually unflagging obligation . . . to exercise the jurisdiction given [it]."
The case goes back to the district court for further proceedings related to the merits.
The Sixth Circuit this week ruled that a state judge enjoys absolute immunity from a lawsuit stemming from the judge's role in a conspiracy to deprive the plaintiff of its civil rights.
The case, HLV, LLC v. Van Buren County, arose when HLV filed a collection action against another corporation, ELC Leasing, in state court, Judge Hamre presiding. The parties came to an agreement, and Judge Hamre signed off. But then things went south. For one, HLV tried to inspect ELC assets (pursuant to the agreement), but ELC physically resisted--an encounter that ultimately drew the police (but no arrests). For another, Judge Hamre issued a series of questionable motions-rulings that undermined the agreement to HLV's detriment.
At one point, Judge Hamre hosted a status conference, with HLV attorneys calling in, but ELC attorneys attending in person. After the conference ended, Judge Hamre and ELC attorneys discussed the case, and Judge Hamre told the attorneys that ELC wouldn't have to comply with the parties' agreement (among other things).
But unbeknownst to Judge Hamre and the ELC attorneys, an HLV attorney was still on the line, and transcribed the entire conversation.
HLV attorneys moved to disqualify Judge Hamre and the ELC attorneys. Soon after, they received a call from a police officer who said that the county prosecutor issued warrants for their arrest for the earlier confrontation.
HLV sued the whole lot of them (Judge Hamre, the prosecutor, the ELC attorneys) for civil rights violations and conspiracy, among other things. The district court dismissed the case against Judge Hamre, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed.
The court ruled that Judge Hamre was absolutely immune from suit under the doctrine of absolute judicial immunity. It also ruled that he didn't fall into either one of the exceptions, because his actions were "truly judicial" (and not nonjudicial) and because the court had jurisdiction (and there was no "absence of jurisdiction"). It didn't matter that Judge Hamre's decisions exceeded jurisdiction, or that they were legally wrong. That's the point of absolute judicial immunity. As the court explained:
Immunizing judges from civil liability helps prevent [judicial timidity out of fear of liability, which would "detract from independent and impartial adjudication"] by allowing judges to "exercise their functions with independence and without fear of consequence." But there is a cost: one incidental effect of judicial immunity is that judges who have abused their position may escape civil liability.
Judge Hamre ultimate recused himself (but only because he might be called as a witness in the criminal case against the HLV attorneys) and retired.
Wednesday, May 29, 2019
In its brief opinion in Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana, the United States Supreme Court reversed the Seventh Circuit's conclusion that Indiana's "fetal remains" statute was unconstitutional and denied certiorari to the question of the whether the Seventh Circuit correctly found unconstitutional the limitation on abortion based on sex, race, or disability.
On the "fetal remains" issue, the Court's opinion stated that the Seventh Circuit's conclusion that a rational basis test was satisfied was incorrect. The Court stressed:
in challenging this provision, respondents have never argued that Indiana’s law imposes an undue burden on a woman’s right to obtain an abortion. This case, as litigated, therefore does not implicate our cases applying the undue burden test to abortion regulations.
Justice Ginsburg, in a brief opinion, dissented on this issue, stating that the judgment should not be summarily reversed when "application of the proper standard would likely yield restoration of the judgment." Thus, it can be expected that the statute will be quickly challenged on this basis.
On the denial of certiorari to the second issue, Justice Thomas's concurring opinion is notable. Thomas concludes that the Court's decision to allow the issue to "percolate" should not be mistaken for acceptance:
Enshrining a constitutional right to an abortion based solely on the race, sex, or disability of an unborn child, as Planned Parenthood advocates, would constitutionalize the views of the 20th-century eugenics movement. In other contexts, the Court has been zealous in vindicating the rights of people even potentially subjected to race, sex, and disability discrimination.
Thomas devotes most of his 20 page concurring opinion to discussing eugenics, singling out for analysis not only the Supreme Court's 1927 opinion in Buck v. Bell but also birth control advocate Margaret Sanger. Thomas's concurrence focuses on abortion but certainly implicates birth control more broadly, and is sure to provoke commentary.
Friday, May 24, 2019
In an opinion in Jackson Women's Health Organization v. Dobbs, Judge Carlton Reeves has issued a preliminary injunction against the enforcement of Mississippi Senate Bill 2116 which "bans abortions in Mississippi after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which is as early as 6 weeks lmp."
The opinion is only 8 pages and begins "Here we go again."
The parties had been before the court before and Judge Reeves previously enjoined a Mississippi law banning abortions at 15 weeks lmp. Judge Reeves in this opinion noted that the "State responded by passing an even more restrictive bill, S.B. 2116." Judge Reeves continued:
This Court previously found the 15-week ban to be an unconstitutional violation of substantive due process because the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that women have the right to choose an abortion prior to viability, and a fetus is not viable at 15 weeks lmp. If a fetus is not viable at 15 weeks lmp, it is not viable at 6 weeks lmp. The State conceded this point. The State also conceded at oral argument that this Court must follow Supreme Court precedent. Under Supreme Court precedent, plaintiffs are substantially likely to succeed on the merits of this claim.
[footnotes omitted]. Judge Reeves cited Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt (201), the Supreme Court's most recent ruling on abortion.
Thursday, May 23, 2019
As anticipated, the Department of Justice has filed a superseding indictment against WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange.
The 18 count indictment charges 17 violations of the Espionage Act, 18 U.S.C. §793, as well as one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. The factual recitations revolve around Chelsea Manning occurring in 2010; other highly publicized allegations involving President Trump and Hillary Clinton do not make an appearance (and their names are not mentioned in the indictment).
The charges of unauthorized obtaining and receiving of "National Defense Information" (counts 1-8) and unauthorized disclosure of that same national defense information (counts 9-17) raise First Amendment issues.
The argument is — quite simply — that Assange has done nothing different than other journalists who have published government information and should be covered by the same constitutional protections afforded the New York Times in The New York Times v. United States (1971), "The Pentagon Papers" Case.
In Assange's situation, the issue is not prior restraint but criminal liability, but certainly the same principles apply as we previously discussed. (Also consider the documentary on Daniel Ellsburg).
This issue has been brewing for a while. A good primer on the intersection between the Espionage Act and First Amendment protections of a free press, is Stephen Vladeck's 2007 article, Inchoate Liability and the Espionage Act: The Statutory Framework and the Freedom of the Press, 1 Harvard Law & Policy Review 219, available here.
Judge Edgardo Ramos (S.D.N.Y.) rejected President Trump's motion for a preliminary injunction to halt congressional subpoenas directed at Deutsche Bank and Capital One for President Trump's financial records. We previously posted on the case here. The ruling is (another) sharp blow to President Trump and his efforts to block congressional subpoenas for his financial records.
Judge Ramos delivered his opinion from the bench and issued this short order.
The court ruled that President Trump was "highly unlikely" to succeed in his effort to halt the subpoenas. In response to the administration's now-standard (and bold and inventive) refrain in response to all House inquiries, the court said that Congress, indeed, had a "legitimate legislative purpose" in seeking the records. (Congress has broad investigative and oversight authority, cabined only by the loose "legitimate legislative purpose." But the Court has given that phrase an expansive reading, making President Trump's argument extremely tenuous--a last and desperate resort to shield his records from Congress.)
The ruling follows a similar ruling earlier this week from another court and another case in response to President Trump's effort to block a subpoena directed at his accountant, Mazars, for his financial records.
Wednesday, May 22, 2019
The State of New York and a host of other states and cities yesterday filed suit in the Southern District of New York to halt the implementation of President Trump's "conscience protection" regulations for health-care providers.
We posted on the regs here. In short, they require health-care providers and state and local recipients of certain federal funds to permit employees to opt out of providing health services if they have a religious objection to those services.
New York's lawsuit follows San Francisco's, filed earlier this month.
The plaintiffs in the New York case allege that the regs exceed statutory authority, violate federal law, are arbitrary and capricious, and violate the Spending Clause, the separation of powers, and the Establishment Clause.
Plaintiffs focus on the expansive definitions in the new regs that sweep beyond the administration's statutory authority, and HHS's ability under the regs to cut off vast amounts of federal funding to states and local governments who do not comply with the "conscience protections." They allege that they'll be harmed in their ability to enforce their own laws (which, among other things, require health-care providers to provide certain services, irrespective of religious beliefs) and in their receipt of federal funds.
In a bit of what-goes-around-comes-around, the plaintiffs draw on the Court's ruling in NFIB v. Sebelius--the Medicaid expansion portion of the ruling--to argue that the sheer amount of threatened federal funds under the new regs turns the condition on federal funding for state and local governments (compliance with the "conscience protections") from pressure into compulsion, in violation of federalism principles. They also contend that the conditions are vague, and that the administration impermissibly imposed them without prior congressional action in violation of the separation of powers. (This latter point is based on HHS's apparent ability to withhold funds not authorized for withholding under existing federal law.)
The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a drug manufacturer, in order to escape state-tort failure-to-warn liability, must show that "it fully informed the FDA of the justifications for the warning required by state law and that the FDA, in turn, informed the drug manufacturer that the FDA would not approve changing the drug's label to include that warning." The Court also ruled that this was a legal question for a judge, not an evidentiary (factual) question for the jury.
The ruling clarifies the standard that the Court set for "impossibility" preemption cases ten years ago in Wyeth v. Levine. In that case, the Court held that in order to show that a drug manufacturer could not simultaneously comply with federal and state requirements on drug warning labels--and that federal law therefore preempted state law--the manufacturer had to show "clear evidence" that the FDA would not have approved a change to the drug label (even as state law required it). Lower courts had trouble with the "clear evidence" standard--what it meant, and who (judge or jury) should apply it. Monday's case, Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. v. Albrecht, clarified things a little.
The issue pits the FDA's authority to approve the contents of drug-label warnings, or to say that a manufacturer cannot include certain warnings, against state tort standards that require warnings in order to avoid failure-to-warn liability. As the Court explained:
The central issue in this case concerns federal preemption, which as relevant here, takes place when it is "impossible for a private party to comply with both state and federal requirements." The state law that we consider is state common law or state statutes that require drug manufacturers to warn drug consumers of the risks associated with drugs. The federal law that we consider is the statutory and regulatory scheme through which the FDA regulates the information that appears on brand-name prescription drug labels.
The Court in Wyeth v. Levine held that a manufacturer had to show "clear evidence" that the FDA would not have approved a warning in order to demonstrate that it couldn't simultaneously comply with federal law (rejecting a warning) and state law (requiring it). The Court on Monday elaborated:
In a case like Wyeth, showing that federal law prohibited the drug manufacturer from adding a warning that would satisfy state law requires the drug manufacturer to show that it fully informed the FDA of the justifications for the warning required by state law and that the FDA, in turn, informed the drug manufacturer that the FDA would not approve changing the drug's label to include that warning.
But the Court said that this isn't a traditional evidentiary or factual standard. Instead, it's a legal question, and it goes to the judge, not the jury. At bottom, then, a judge has to decide "whether the relevant federal and state laws 'irreconcilably conflic[t]."
This could be tough for manufacturers, given FDA labeling options. Under FDA regs there are at least two ways that a manufacturer might add a warning: through the FDA approval process; or through the "changes being effected" ("CBE") process, which allows a manufacturer unilaterally to strengthen a warning when there is "newly acquired information" about the drug (subject to later FDA review and approval). Moreover, the Court has been clear: the manufacturer bears ultimate responsibility for appropriate and sufficient warnings.
In this case, Merck went back and forth with the FDA on adding a warning about atypical femoral fracture to its label for Fosamax, an oral drug that slows the breakdown of old bone cells and thus helps postmenopausal women avoid osteoporotic fractures. Merck added a "precaution" about "low-energy femoral shaft fracture" through the FDA-approval process, but the FDA rejected Merck's request to cross-reference a longer discussion that focused on "the risk of stress fractures associated with Fosamax." (The FDA explained that "[i]dentification of 'stress fractures' may not be clearly related to the atypical subtrochanteric fractures that have been reported in the literature.") Merck added that change itself through the CBE process, but made no changes to the "Precautions" section of the label--the section at issue in this case.
On remand, then, the judge will have to apply the refined Wyeth v. Levine standard to these facts.
Justice Breyer wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Gorsuch.
Justice Thomas concurred, expressing his "skeptic[ism] that 'physical impossibility' is a proper test for deciding whether a direct conflict exists between federal and state law." Instead, he would look to a "logical contradiction" between the two.
Justice Alito, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh, concurred in the judgment only. He wrote to emphasize that Congress enacted legislation after Wyeth v. Levine that may bear on the preemption analysis, and to argue that the facts are somewhat more complicated than the majority opinion reflects. (Justice Alito dissented in Wyeth v. Levine. He was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia.)