Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Procedure in constitutional challenges, ctd.
Last week, I wrote about courts (arguably) misapplying Twiqbal in constitutional injunction action, using plausibility to avoid addressing questions of law head-on on a 12(b)(6) motion. The en banc Fourth Circuit gives us another example, in Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy v. Mayor of Baltimore, one of two cases (the other decision, involving a similar regulation from Montgomery County, MD, is here) challenging local regulations requiring church-affiliated crisis pregnancy centers to post signs in their lobbies stating that they do not provide abortion or comprehensive birth control referrals, services, or counseling.
The district court in Baltimore Center granted a permanent injunction on summary judgment without giving the City an opportunity to take certain discovery. Without reaching the First Amendment merits, the majority (written by Judge King, who wrote an outraged dissent from the original panel decision) held that summary judgment was improper and the city should have been given an opportunity for discovery on a number of issues, primarily the status of the centers as commercial enterprises (which determines whether this is compelled commercial speech, which in turn affects the standard of First Amendment scruriny). Judge Niemeyer (who wrote the panel opinion affirming the district court and invalidating the regulations) dissented, insisting that all of this involved questions of law for which discovery is unnecessary and inappropriate. Whether speech is commercial or involves commercial and non-commercial speech inextricably intertwined is a question of law and, in this case, obvious, such that discovery should not enter the picture. As with 12(b)(6), this all illustrates of how procedures developed to handle fact-intensive cases apply to more law-intensive ones. And how should courts treat facts such as the legislative record for procedural purposes?
Political valences are nakedly obvious in this decision. Both dissents accuse the majority of using procedure to undermine the plaintiffs' rights and accuse the city of abusing discovery as a way to deny plaintiffs justice. This is, of course, a switch from the ordinary viewpoint (especially for judges such as these dissenters), where it is plaintiffs abusing discovery and judges protecting defendants from that abuse. Of course, the (likely) competing substantive views of reproductive freedom continually bubble to the service; this is prevalent in Judge Wilkinson's solo dissent, which accuses the majority of twisting in all directions to aid the choice movement and warns that compelled speech can be used against both sides in this debate. This is true, although again, attitudes about the topic seem to affect First Amendment analysis on all sides.The last noteworthy point is the disagreement about the effect of a preliminary injunction. In response to the abusive-discovery-denying-liberty point, the majority offered that the district court could have granted a preliminary injunction, thereby protecting the center against having to post the signs until discovery could work itself out. At the same time, the judges crossed swords over how much effect to give a preliminary injunction. The dissents both cited to the Montgomery County case (which involved a preliminary injunction) as establishing that the centers engaged in non-commercial speech to which strict scrutiny applied. But the majority insisted that a preliminary injunction is just that--preliminary--meaning it is subject to abuse-of-discretion review and does not firmly establishing constitutional principles. This is questionable; because the grant and denial of a preliminary injunction is immediately appealable as of right, much constitutional litigation (including appellate and SCOTUS review) occurs at the preliminary injunction stage.
I had thought these cases might be ripe for SCOTUS review (there are four First Amendment cases on tap for next year, one only indirectly--more than this past term, but less than in past terms). But the cases are so bound up in procedure, I wonder if either is the right vehicle, at least right now.
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