Thursday, May 21, 2015
Class certifcation in Alabama SSM litigation
Judge Callie Granade of the Southern District of Alabama took a giant step towards establishing marriage equality throughout Alabama. Judge Granade finally granted the motion for class certification in Strawser. She certified a plaintiff class of
all persons in Alabama who wish to obtain a marriage license in order to marry a person of the same sex and to have the marriage recognized under Alabama law, and who are unable to do so because of the enforcement of Alabama's laws prohibiting the issuance of marriage licenses to same sex couples and barring recognition of their marriages.
And she certified a defendant class of
all Alabama county probate judges who are enforcing or in the future may enforce Alabama's laws barring the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples and refusing to recognize their marriages.
In a separate order, she extended the preliminary injunction, previously entered against Probate Judge Don Davis, to Probate Judge Tim Russell and the rest of that defendant class, prohibiting them from enforcing the state's same-sex marriage ban and requiring them to issue licenses to any member of the protective class who follows the proper steps towards obtaining a marriage license. But Judge Granade then stayed the injunction pending SCOTUS resolution of Obergefell, which is "imminent."
Thoughts on the order and where this leaves us after the jump.Assuming (as everyone expects) Obergefell establishes Fourteenth Amendment protection for same-sex marriage, Judge Granade will immediately lift the stay, establishing a binding injunction prohibiting enforcement of the Alabama SSM ban effective throughout the state and guaranteeing every same-sex couple a marriage license. That injunction is necessary to put Obergefell into effect in the state, since that decision will have nothing to say directly to Alabama law or to any Alabama officials. And because it protects all possible couples and binds alll possible probate judges, it spares couples the trouble of having to initiate individual litigation against individual judges to obtain injunctions in light of Obergefell.
Judge Granade also swept aside various arguments that the federal court should defer to the state mandamus prohibiting probate judges from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Rooker-Feldman, the Anti Injunction Act, and every other abstention doctrine were inapplicable, since the plaintiffs were not parties to the state mandamus proceeding and, in any event, the federal injunction preceded the state mandamus.
Granade further insisted that, pursuant to the Supremacy Clause, the federal injunction enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment trumps state law and the state mandamus action, citing SCOTUS' discussion of the Supremacy Clause and Ex Parte Young from Armstrong. As she put it, the defendants "cannot be held liable for violating Alabama state law when their conduct was required by the United States Constitution."*
* I actually believe Judge Granade's analysis is wrong on this point. The conflict here is not between a state law and a federal injunction applying the Fourteenth Amendment against that state law. The conflict is between two judicial decisions and orders--one state, one federal--interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supremacy Clause does not raise the federal order above the state order. Judge Granade's view that the Fourteenth Amendment requires defendants to issuance of licenses does not trump the Alabama Supreme Court's view that the Fourteenth Amendment does not require, and in fact prohibits, issuance of those licenses. This analysis again reflects the erroneous view that one district court's declaration establishes the meaning of "the Constitution."
The correct answer is that there is, indeed, a potential conflict between the two orders. But the state mandamus expressly allows probate judges to show that they are under a conflicting federal obligation, offering a basis to be relieved from the state mandamus. In other words, the state court order itself eliminates any federal-state conflict, obviating the need for the federal court to avoid the conflict by staying its hand.
Of course, it would not be Alabama if someone did not misstate what is going on. Today, it was the Southern Poverty Law Center, which stated that this decision "ends the chaos and confusion that Attorney General Strange and Chief Justice Moore have intentionally caused through their reckless rejection of federal constitutional principles." As I have written and continue to write, I am not quite sure what "federal constitutional principles" Strange or Moore have rejected. That is, unless "any decision with which we agree, even a non-binding precedent from a single district judge, must be binding on everyone everywhere" is a federal constitutional principle.
Monday, May 18, 2015
SCOTUS Will Decide Whether Class-Action Defendants May "Pick Off" Putative Class Representatives
The Supreme Court today agreed to decide a question that has long plagued lawyers on both sides of the class-action bar: whether a defendant may render a claim moot, for purposes of Article III, by tendering complete relief to a putative class representative.
There are three questions presented in Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez (No. 14-857). The first is a threshold question: whether tendering complete relief moots a claim even outside the class-action context. But the Court, in articulating the second question, anticipated the possibility that the answer might be "different when the plaintiff has asserted a class claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, but receives an offer of complete relief before any class is certified." (The third issue in the case relates to immunity for government contractors, which the Court could theoretically decide and not reach the other two.).
If the Court holds that an offer can moot a claim, it may also have to decide whether the timing of the offer makes a difference. Does it matter whether the plaintiff has already filed suit? Presumably not, because most class-action plaintiffs (at least in actions seeking monetary damages) do not reveal themselves before filing. Does it matter whether the plaintiff has moved for class certification at the time of the offer (as some courts have suggested)? Does it matter how far the class-certification proceedings have gone? All this remains to be seen. All we know at this point (based on the phrasing of the question) is that the Court will not likely permit an offer after certification to render the claim moot (which makes sense, because at that point the unnamed class members have been joined in the lawsuit, albeit in absentia).
The outcome of this case is as likely to be guided by policy as by constitutional doctrine, especially if the Court finds that an early settlement offer does not moot the action. Courts that have rejected mootness in this context have expressed concern over the practice of "picking off" putative class representatives one by one, leaving the plaintiff bar with no economic incentive to vindicate the interests of the class as a whole.
How do you see this case coming out?
Thursday, May 07, 2015
Same-Sex Marriage: The (Ted) Kennedy Legacy
The odds-makers are generally in agreement that the deciding vote in Obergefell v. Hodges will be Justice Kennedy. While some have speculated that Chief Justice Roberts will find a way to join in a majority judgment (if not majority opinion) recognizing a Constitutional right to same-sex marriage, the more-prevalent view is that the liberal-conservative stalwarts on the Court will split 4-4 and that Kennedy will cast the decisive fifth vote one way or the other. If he sides with the proponents of same-sex marriage, the winners will have another Kennedy to thank, albeit posthumously, for that result: Senator Ted Kennedy.
The narrative goes like this:
In 1987, Justice Lewis Powell retired, leaving President Ronald Reagan his third Supreme Court vacancy to fill. (The first occurred when Potter Stewart retired, and President Reagan appointed Sandra Day O'Connor. The second occurred when Chief Justice Warren Burger retired, and President Reagan elevated William Rehnquist to the Chief Justice seat and appointed Antonin Scalia to fill the vacancy.) Reagan nominated Judge Robert Bork of the D.C. Circuit, leading to the infamous confirmation hearing that ended with a Senate vote rejecting Bork, 58-42.
Bork’s greatest and first nemesis in that nomination process was Senator Kennedy, who took to the Senate floor and urged that “Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.”
Notably absent from that floor speech was any notion of rights for gays and lesbians. Remember, this was 1987. Bowers v. Hardwick, the 1986 case that permitted states to criminalize sexual conduct between members of the same sex, was fresh law (and remained on the books until 2002, when Justice Kennedy wrote the decision in Lawrence v. Texas that overturned it).
Kennedy's speech galvanized the Senate, and the nation. Vice-President Joe Biden, then a senator and chair of the Judiciary Committee, had his own field day during the committee hearings. I was a fresh-faced first-year law student, and the protests on my law-school campus made indelible impressions on me. When Bork was ultimately defeated, we knew we had won. We didn't quite know what we had won, but we knew we had won something.
President Reagan next nominated Douglas Ginsburg to fill Powell's spot, but Ginsburg withdrew after reports surfaced that he had used marijuana. (Remember, it was 1987.) So Reagan turned to Anthony Kennedy. And here we are today.
Bork died in 2012. Had he won confirmation and remained on the Court until his death, President Obama would have been in office at the time of the vacancy. Given the likelihood that Obama would have appointed a justice favorably disposed to same-sex-marriage rights, some might say that blocking the Bork nomination had no ultimate impact on this issue. But it’s important to remember that Obergefell did not materialize out of thin air. It comes following years of development of legal protections for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people: (1) the Kennedy opinion in Romer v. Evans, which in 1995 struck down a state constitutional provision banning anti-discrimination laws protecting gays, lesbians, and bisexuals; (2) the 2002 Kennedy opinion in Lawrence; and (3) the 2013 Kennedy opinion in United States v. Windsor, overturning a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act.
So some credit is due to Senator Kennedy, arguably responsible (at least in part) for the ultimate nomination of Justice Kennedy. And that Kennedy-Kennedy legacy may end up making a bigger mark on history when the Court announces the Obergefell decision at the end of June.
Sunday, May 03, 2015
During the break between the petitioner and Solicitor General arguments on the first issue in Obergefell, a protester began screaming about how the Bible tells us that supporters of gay marriage will burn in hell, it's an abomination, etc. After the guy was pulled out of the courtroom (apparently it took four officers), the Chief offered Donald Verilli an extra minute to compose himself; Verilli first accepted, then declined. As Verilli was moving to the podium to begin his argument, Justice Scalia said "It was rather refreshing, actually," which was met with laughter from the gallery. (The whole thing is at pp. 27-28 of the transcript and at the very end of the petitioner's argument on the audio).
Jeffrey Toobin argued that the real ugly part was not the outburst, but Scalia's "shameful" joke. According to Toobin's article, expanded upon in this Political Scene Podcast, what Scalia found "refreshing" was that someone inside the courtroom was finally making the real argument against same-sex marriage--moral condemnation of homosexuality and LGBTQ people--rather than the sterile and ultimately incoherent arguments about accidental procreation and "biological moms and dads." Scalia was not joking; he was endorsing the viewpoint expressed by someone intentionally disrupting the proceedings and regretting that viewpoint's absence from the actual proceedings. Toobin even suggested that the response was not real laughter, but shock at what Scalia had said.
Honestly, it never occurred to me that Scalia was suggesting that this was the "real" argument that he wished would be made in the case. I heard this as genuine laughter rather than shock at Scalia's provocativeness (the advantage to being able to hear the argument, not just read it). It certainly is unusual for a justice to comment on courtroom protests, much less through a joke--and perhaps it is inappropriate. Perhaps Scalia meant that the protest broke the tension of the argument. If so, we can note that Scalia never finds the anti-Citizens United protests "refreshing," suggesting he simply was reacting to the rare protester who is not on the opposite side of an issue as he is. And that, too, might be inappropriate.
But was Scalia really "endorsing" the views expressed? Is Toobin right about this? Or is this another example of simplistic and reductivist coverage of the Court? And am I being too forgiving of Scalia?
Friday, May 01, 2015
Why is Glossip hard?
The following is by Corinna Lain (Richmond).
I’ll be guest blogging in June, and am very much looking forward to sharing ideas and, hopefully, generating conversation then. But after listening to this week’s oral argument in Glossip v. Gross, the lethal injection case currently before the Supreme Court, I feel the need to share now.
And here’s what I can’t figure out: why is this case hard?
We’ve got a district court that essentially upheld Oklahoma’s use of midazolam as the first drug in its 3-drug lethal injection protocol against a claim that it would not, and could not, insulate the condemned from the pain associated with the next 2 drugs of the protocol. The pain associated with those 2 drugs is undisputed—one of them is a paralytic that slows and then stops the diaphragm so the condemned slowly suffocates to death, and the other has been dubbed “liquid fire” because it produces the feeling of being burned alive. The Supreme Court has already held that if the first drug doesn’t insulate the condemned from feeling the last two drugs, that’s a violation of the 8th Amendment cruel & unusual punishments clause. So it all comes down to whether midazolam can reliably do that.
So back to my question: why is this case hard?
Midazolam is a sedative, not an anesthetic; it is uncontested that it has no anesthetic properties. The district court said that didn’t matter, relying on a doctor who opined that 500 milligrams of midazolam was enough to kill someone, so even if it wasn’t an anesthetic, it would still render condemned inmates unconscious so they wouldn’t experience the pain. The problem with that is (1) the doctor’s opinion was extrapolated from an estimated lethal dose amount and he made a math error of 3 decimal points in doing so, so the correct estimated lethal dose is actually 4,970 milligrams rather than 4.97 milligrams or even 497 milligrams (an error that is uncontested); (2) even if the drug was lethal at the 500 milligram amount, just because a drug is big & bad enough to kill you doesn’t mean it’s going to render you unconscious and unable to feel pain first; (3) even the sources upon which the doctor relied were sketchy—drugs.com (which explicitly states that its information “is not intended for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment”) and OSHA’s material safety data sheet (which explicitly disclaims “any warranty, express or implied, regarding its correctness”); and (4) there’s a clear consensus in the scientific community that goes entirely the other way. Interestingly, the Court now has an amicus brief by a group of pharmacology professors who are not in support of either side, but want the Justices to at least get the science right. And what they say is that midazolam is incapable of rendering the condemned unconscious at a level that would resist ‘noxious stimuli’ like surgery and pain-inducing drugs.
So you might be thinking how in the world did we even get here? My take is it’s all too easy to dismiss these claims as just another condemned inmate trying to get another day. And you can see this dynamic at the oral arguments in Glossip.
So while Justice Breyer is scratching his head trying to find something, anything, that actually supports the district court finding, and Justices Kagan and Sotomayor are taking Oklahoma to task for quoting medical propositions out of context and misleading the Court, Justices Scalia and Alito have a different point to make: this is all the abolitionists’ fault.
You have to be able to point to a better drug to get the job done, they say, and the reason better drugs aren’t available is because abolitionists have put pressure on drug manufacturers not to sell them (or at least not to sell them to executioners). They’re right about the pressure (kinda sorta—this is largely about European abolitionism, as a forthcoming article shows) but they’re wrong about the condemned having to come up with a lethal injection protocol that works in order to avoid a torturous death with a lethal injection protocol that doesn’t.
So long as capital punishment is legal, there has to be a constitutional way to carry it out, so the argument goes. I think that’s contestable, but even assuming it were true, the Supreme Court has already upheld a number of other execution methods, so the availability of other lethal injection protocols is a red herring. Weird as it sounds, I think there’s a good argument for the firing squad as a more humane method of execution, though I’ll save those musings for my stint as guest blogger. The point is this: if an execution method causes lingering death and/or unnecessary pain (and everything we know about midazolam suggests it does both) then that violates not just our sense of decency, but the constitution as well. And that’s true whether there’s a better lethal injection protocol out there or not.
So why is Glossip a hard case? Best I can figure, it’s because frustration with the success of abolitionists has created a blind spot on the law.
Thursday, April 30, 2015
Upon further review . . .
I am rethinking my two posts on what happens in the lower courts outside the Sixth Circuit if the Court rejects marriage equality in Obergefell. I stand by my earlier suggestion that state officials will go back to the district court to dissolve the injunction.
But on further consideration, I am not sure this is significant or even necessary. And the reason goes back to the limited scope of the actual injunctions. None of the cases involved class actions; all were individual plaintiffs (generally 3-4 couples). Thus, when SCOTUS denied cert., state officials were obligated by the injunction only to issue licenses to the named plaintiffs, which they did. They were not obligated by the injunction to issue licenses to anyone else and no one else was entitled by the injunction to a license. So it is not the injunction that obligates state officials in California, Illinois, Utah, etc., to issue licenses to same-sex couples--it is the circuit precedent and the knowledge that they will be sued, enjoined, and made to pay attorneys' fees if they do not issue the licenses to new couples.
So there is no pressing reason for Scott Walker to get the Wisconsin injunction dissolved after Obergefell, at least in avoiding issuing new marriage licenses, although he will do it anyway. The injunction is not imposing any current obligations on him.
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Fontana and Braman empirically test the countermajoritarian difficulty
David Fontana and Donald Braman (both of GW) discuss their study showing that, on the question of marriage equality, people do not [ed: oops] care whether marriage equality is established by SCOTUS or by Congress. Opinions on same-sex marriage were unchanged by the institution that established it.
What if SCOTUS rejects marriage equality?
I have not yet read/listened to the Obergefell arguments (I plan to get to it as soon as I finish writing this), although I have read some reports. I am fairly confident the Court will declare that SSM bans are invalid (and I am kind-of confident it will be a 6-3 vote).
But for now, suppose the Court goes the other way and holds that the Fourteenth Amendment does not guarantee marriage equality and does not require states to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages. After the jump, I want to consider four procedural questions: 1) What do the states do where same-sex marriage has come via federal court order that has become final (including all the cases in which SCOTUS denied cert. last fall, as well as California); 2) What do the states do where a district court judgment invalidating the state ban is pending on appeal but was not stayed? 3) What happens to the same-sex marriages that have been entered in those states where the federal decision has gone to final judgment? 4) What happens to the same-sex marriages that have been entered in those states in which the district court decision is on appeal but has not been stayed (e.g., Florida and the four couples in my beloved Alabama)?
1) The states return to the district court supervising the injunction with a motion to dissolve under FRCP 60(b)(5) or (b)(6). The argument is that there has been a "significant change" in the legal circumstances, in that the conduct the injunction prohibited (denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples) has become constitutionally permissible; the injunction thus is no longer equitable, as it is based on a judicial decision that is no longer valid in light of the prevailing understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment announced by SCOTUS. It seems pretty obvious that an injunction based on some extrapolation from Windsor, Lawrence, Romer, and general Equal Protection principles cannot survive a decision from SCOTUS expressly declaring that same-sex marriage bans do not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. So the motion will be granted, the injunction will be dissolved, and the state law barring issuance of licenses to same-sex couples will again be enforceable.
2) This situation presents three paths to the same outcome. First, these states could simply present Obergefell to the court of appeals, which will apply it to reverse the district court judgments and to order final judgment entered in favor of the states on the constitutional issues. Alternatively, the court of appeals could shift the work back to the district court by summarily vacating and remanding for reconsideration in light of Obergefell, with the district court itself applying Obergefell to enter judgment in favor of the state. A third possibility is for these states to file the sameRule 60(b) motion in the district court. Under FRAP 12.1 and local rules in several Circuits (including the Eleventh, one of the places in which appeals are pending), a district court can make an "indicative ruling" on a motion (including a Rule 60(b) motion) that it otherwise lacks jurisdiction to resolve because the case is in the court of appeals; if the district court indicates its intent to grant the motion, the court of appeals can remand the case to allow the district court to grant the motion and to enter the revised judgment. Under any approach, the result is that the injunction will be dissolved and the state ban on same-sex marriage again becomes enforceable.
3) These marriages remain valid. The states granted licenses to these couples under a federal injunction that had been appealed and had become final. The state of the law in these states was that prohibitions on same-sex marriage were invalid and unenforceable, meaning these couples were legally entitled to those licenses and state officials were legally obligated to grant them. And that remained the state of the law until the district court dissolved the injunction.
4) I am not sure of the answer to this. Mike Dorf argued here that there is no basis in federal constitutional law to "grandfather" some marriages, which would effectively give permanent force to a judgment that has been subsequently reversed. The validity of these marriages ultimately would be a matter of state law, unhindered by the U.S. Constitution. That sounds right, but I welcome competing arguments.
Saturday, April 25, 2015
If I've lost the media . . .
I have made pretty clear my view that the Alabama Supreme Court and Alabama public officials have not been defying federal courts or federal law over same-sex marriage, given the limited scope of district court orders and injunctions. And I thought I had convinced Emily Bazelon when she wrote this, based in part on interviews with Orin Kerr and with me.
But then on Friday's Slate Political Gabfest, in a preview of next week's Obergefell arguments, Bazelon used the words "rebel" and "defy" to describe recent events in Alabama. Oh well. A subsequent email exchange indicated differences in views about the interaction between the mandamus and the federal injunction and the effect of each on the other. In my view (which I explain further here), the injunction only obligated one probate judge, Don Davis, to issue licenses to the four couples who are plaintiffs in Strawser, which he did. At that point, the mandamus did not impose any obligations on Davis or anyone else that competed or conflicted with obligations from the federal court. We are back to one (functionally) lower federal court disagreeing with another lower federal court about federal law. That is disagreement, not defiance or rebellion.
Thursday, April 23, 2015
Forum selection, upside-down
The family of Michael Brown has filed a civil rights action against the City of Ferguson, the former Chief of Police, and Darren Wilson. The complaint is a bit confusing. It appears to assert multiple individual, supervisory, and Monell counts for Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations, including a claim for loss of familial relationship under the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as excessive force. The complaint goes after Ferguson's larger patterns-or-practices of unconstitutional behavior, describing events going back as far as 2010. At the same time, the introduction describes it as a wrongful death action under Missouri law for violations of the U.S. and Missouri constitutions, even though the state Constitution is never mentioned again and no torts (battery, whatever) are asserted.
It is noteworthy--and puzzling--that the family filed in state rather than federal court. There is nothing state-based about the legal rights actually asserted in the Complaint; this is a straight-forward § 1983 claim asserting federal constitutional rights. The idea behind federal question jurisdiction was to offer parties the expertise and respect for federal law and federal rights that federal judges offer, as well as the freedom to protect those rights that comes with Article III protections. And that idea takes on special importance when asserting constitutional claims against local governments and local government officials that only became possible with the Fourteenth Amendment, where federal judges are insulated from the local pro-government pressures that might work against civil-rights plaintiffs. Indeed, arguments against congressional jurisdiction-stripping always have fought against the bogeyman of plaintiffs forced to pursue federal constitutional rights against local government institutions before an uninsulated local judiciary.* Has federal judicial procedure--Twiqbal, summary judgment, limits on discovery--become so hostile to civil rights plaintiffs and so pro-defendant that plaintiffs would prefer to litigate against a local government in state court? Consider that the two biggest hurdles that § 1983 plaintiffs regularly face--qualified immunity and the heightened demands for making a Monell claim--follow them into state court anyway. So why pick state over federal in this type of case?
Addition: Note that I am assuming the choice was strategic rather than familiar. The three lawyers on the case include one attorney from Clayton, MO and two from Tallahassee. The web site for the latter two indicates that they largely specialize in personal injury and automobile accident cases, although Civil Rights is listed as a practice area. I cannot find anything about the local attorney (who has been in front of the media since the fall). If all three are primarily PI lawyers who primarily litigate in state court, the choice of forum might simply have been an automatic move rather than a deliberate choice based on specialized understanding of § 1983 litigation.
The interesting question is whether the defendants remove, seeing as how they might see themselves as being in an advantageous position in either court.
The First Amendment and the Redskins’ Trademark, Part II: A Shot Across the Bow from the Federal Circuit
The following post is by Christine Haight Farley and Robert L. Tsai (both of American); it is their second guest post on the Washington Professional Football Team trademark case. It is cross-posted at the Sports Law Blog.
On Tuesday, the Federal Circuit issued a unanimous decision (In re Tam) holding that the mark THE SLANTS was properly refused registration because it is disparaging to people of Asian descent. Since 2010, Simon Shiao Tam, the front man for the Asian-American rock band “The Slants,” has been trying to obtain trademark recognition for the name of his band. The record shows that the band picked the name by thinking of “things that people associate with Asians. Obviously, one of the first things people say is that we have slanted eyes.” The record of the case confirmed that “slants,” used in the way proposed, would likely be received as a racial slur.
The fact that the registrant wished to re-appropriate an ethnic slur and try to create a positive connotation did not alter the outcome. Nor was the Court troubled that the user’s own race formed part of the background for assessing the objective meaning of the mark in commerce. Both of these jurisprudential choices are consistent with the Federal Circuit’s approach to statutory interpretation, which strives for an objective meaning of trademarks in actual use. In our view, the private cooptation of illiberal ideas can generate terrific art and might very well help to change social meaning in the long run. But you don’t need trademark protection to engage in such projects of appropriation; indeed, granting one user legal protection might even stifle others who would like to experiment further with taboo ideas.
In re Tam now makes it two cases on trademark disparagement that the Federal Circuit has ever decided—both have been in the past year and both affirmed the TTAB’s finding of disparagement. The court obviously felt bound by precedent. Nevertheless, Judge Moore, the author of the 11-page majority opinion, offered 24 pages of what was styled “additional views," but which read more like a petition for rehearing en banc on the constitutionality of § 2(a) of the Lanham Act.
Though not binding, this last bit by Judge Moore may prove most interesting of all. The judge offered many reasons for wanting to revisit the Federal Circuit’s position on the constitutionality of § 2(a): its 1981 decision In re McGinley did not cite any authority, its analysis consists of only a few sentences, the decision has been criticized in the intervening years, jurisprudence on the unconstitutional conditions doctrine and the protection accorded commercial speech has since evolved, and the source of the PTO’s funding has shifted from tax payers to user fees.
The judge contends that In re Tam presents an unusually strong case for considering trademarks as protected speech since the applicant intended to use the mark to reclaim Asian stereotypes and to participate in a political and cultural discourse about race as a musical artist. At oral argument, the judge tried to distinguish this feature of the case from the Redskins case.
But the main thrust of Judge Moore's constitutional challenge to § 2(a) is based on the unconstitutional conditions doctrine, which holds that the government cannot deny access to a government benefit on the basis of the recipients exercise of constitutionally protected speech.
In claiming that the benefits of registration are not just procedural, but are also substantive, Judge Moore states that a disparaging mark “cannot be protected by its owner by virtue of a § 43(a) unfair competition claim” because “§ 43(a) protection is only available for unregistered trademarks that could have qualified for federal registration.” (emphasis in original). This is a bold claim not exactly supported by the cases she cites. The Supreme Court’s Taco Cabana decision simply says that “the general principles” under § 2 are “for the most part applicable” in determining whether an unregistered mark is protectable. That’s right because for the most part, these general principles are common law doctrine codified in the Lanham Act. No case yet holds that the owner of a disparaging mark would not be able to assert common law rights against an infringer, but in a 2013 decision the Federal Circuit did suggest that an unregistrable common law mark may receive protection under § 43. As we argued in a previous post, variations in the availability of legal remedies are better understood as procedural changes rather than subsidies of private speech.
By focusing on the benefits of registration, Judge Moore loses sight of the significance of registration. Although in civil law countries trademark registration generally confers rights, in the US trademark rights are created by using a mark in commerce and developing good will. Registration is “essentially a recognition of a right already acquired by use.” At the same time registration is encouraged because it provides notice of rights—hence the benefits that flow from registration. These benefits, however, are distinguishable from benefits conferred by the government in other unconstitutional conditions cases, which typically involve direct subsidies of speech. In the case of trademark registration, the government is literally approving of certain trademarks; the symbol of trademark registration—the “R” in a circle—is a statement by the trademark owner that the government has approved, not its business or its goods, but the mark itself. Such approved trademarks are included in the government’s registry, or list of marks certified by the government. No other unconstitutional conditions case involves such symbolic acts of endorsement by the government, but instead involve unseen deeds such as exemptions from taxes or import duties.
The limited nature of the denial of registration seems to be lost on Judge Moore. The PTO’s refusal to register disparaging trademarks does not force the owner of a disparaging mark to relinquish a constitutional right. The owner can continue to use the mark. In cases where the Supreme Court has found an unconstitutional condition, the speaker has few realistic options other than to cease engaging in a particular form of speech in order to avail itself of a valuable government benefit. No such forced choice results from § 2(a). Because the registration system parallels common law trademark protection, some of which is enshrined in the Lanham Act, the owner of a disparaging mark can continue to engage in its chosen speech and endeavor to have it protected as a common law trademark.
Perhaps worst of all, Judge Moore's application of the presumption against content-based regulations to § 2(a) has no limit. If all trademarks are constitutionally protected speech and the act of registration is the conferral of a substantive benefit, then when may the PTO make a content-based determination that affects registration without violating the First Amendment? The Lanham Act also requires the PTO to refuse registration to marks that consists of simulations of state insignia and marks that include the name of a president. There’s no doubt that these determinations involve trademark owners as speakers and the denial of benefits. They also require the PTO to evaluate the content of the mark. Should the constitutionality of these provisions also be revisited? And what about the denial of registration to merely descriptive marks, deceptive marks, and marks that falsely suggest connections? Under Judge Moore’s logic, these determinations are as unconstitutional as direct content-based regulations of speech. Moreover, it is worth noting that none of these kinds of marks would fall within traditionally unprotected categories of speech (e.g., libel, incitement, obscenity). So applying the First Amendment full bore as Judge Moore proposes would also disable the PTO from barring the registration of these marks as well.
The broader point is that all trademark registration determinations under § 2 are content-based because they all involve an evaluation of the meaning of the mark in the context of its use and analysis of whether it is disparaging, descriptive, deceptive, etc. Thus, if strict scrutiny is applied to the ban on disparaging or scandalous marks, it is also required in evaluating the constitutionality of all the other trademark restrictions contained in § 2. If a court were truly serious about apply this presumption, there would be little left of trademark law.
Finally, Judge Moore asserts that trademarks are private speech, not government speech. Judge Moore asserts that when “the government publishes registered trademarks in the Trademark Principal Register, it does so not to communicate a particular message or select a particular viewpoint.” But it is hard to get around the fact that the Register is a list of marks that the government has approved and that when a trademark owner uses the registered “R” symbol along with its mark, it is using that symbol precisely as a certification that the government has approved its mark. It is only when the PTO rejects the registration of a mark that its use is purely private. There are a host of reasons why the government should have the power to distance itself from odious speech and illiberal business practices. As we argued in a recent Slate article, all of these are compelling features of the federal government’s power to regulate interstate commerce.
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
The Fifth Circuit Jumps the Non-Article III Shark
A big thanks to Will Baude for alerting me to yesterday's fascinating decision by the Fifth Circuit in United States v. Hollingsworth, in which a divided panel upheld the constitutionality of a non-Article III magistrate judge trying without the defendant's consent a petty criminal offense committed on a "federal enclave." Hollingsworth is a great case for federal courts nerds, because it brings together two different threads of the Supreme Court's jurisprudence regarding non-Article III federal adjudication: (1) Congress's power to relegate certain matters to non-Article III magistrate judges; and (2) Congress's power to relegate certain matters to non-Article III "territorial" courts. Unfortunately, Hollingsworth combines these threads in a manner that utterly confuses them. Thus, although the panel reached what in my view is the right result, it did so for deeply flawed reasons, which I elaborate upon below the fold.
The facts of Hollingsworth are pretty straightforward; David Hollingsworth was tried and convicted before a federal magistrate judge in the Eastern District of Louisiana for simple assault at the Naval Air Station Joint Reverse Base New Orleans in Belle Chasse, a "federal enclave" that is within the "special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States." No one disputes that Hollingsworth's crime is a "petty offense" under federal law, because the maximum sentence he could have received was six months' imprisonment. Hollingsworth was tried without a jury before a non-Article III federal judge, and, after an unsuccessful appeal to the district court, appealed his conviction to the Fifth Circuit on the grounds that such a trial (without his consent) before a non-Article III judge violated Article III and his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.
Writing for a 2-1 majority, Judge Clement held that Hollingsworth's claims were foreclosed by the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Palmore v. United States. Palmore, readers may recall, upheld Congress's power to create a non-Article III court of general jurisdiction within the District of Columbia, almost entirely based upon Justice White's (flawed) analogy of the D.C. Superior Court to state courts. But while Palmore's reasoning has been heavily criticized, the basic proposition it establishes (that Congress can establish non-Article III courts in federal territories) is generally accepted today. Thus, Judge Clement concludes, "[U]nder Palmore, Hollingsworth has no constitutional right to trial before an Art. III court. . . . Pursuant to Clause 17, Congress could have referred all trials for crimes committed at Belle Chasse to an Article I judge, including felony trials.But Congress chose to refer only trials for petty offenses to federal magistrate judges."
In other words, Judge Clement reads into Congress's (in her view, greater) power to create non-Article III courts in federal territories the arguably lesser power to have magistrate judges try all offenses committed within those territories--and it's just Congress's good graces that stopped it from empowering magistrate judges to try anything other than petty offenses in this case.
The problem with this analysis is that it misreads the relevant statutes, and thereby conflates two very different justifications for non-Article III adjudication. The justification for territorial courts is tied entirely to Congress's unique (and plenary) regulatory power over federal territories; the justification for trying petty offenses before magistrate judges is tied entirely to a different consideration--that there's no right to trial by jury in such cases, regardless of where they are committed (indeed, this is the almost tautological conclusion of Part II of Judge Clement's opinion). Thus, Hollingsworth was tried under the general (and aterritiorial) statutory authority that empowers federal magistrate judges to try petty offenses without a jury even if the defendant doesn't consent.
Indeed, the only reason why the territorial location is significant in Hollingsworth is because simple assault is only a federal offense (albeit a petty one) when committed within the "special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States." But once it's established that Hollingsworth has committed a federal offense, the fact that it was committed on a federal enclave is irrelevant to the statutory (and, in my view, constitutional) authority of the magistrate judge. In other words, Hollingsworth has nothing at all to do with Palmore. Given that I don't think it follows from Palmore that magistrate judges can try any offense committed on federal territory (for a bunch of reasons that I plan to elaborate upon in future writings), it was therefore completely unnecessary for the Fifth Circuit to decide this (novel) question.
Instead, the real question is whether non-Article III magistrate judges may generally try petty offenses without the defendant's consent. But as I've explained at some length in my (hot-off-the-presses) article on military courts, the Supreme Court has long equated the validity of non-Article III adjudication, at least in criminal cases, with the absence of a right to trial by jury. Note that this doesn't explain Palmore (where the defendant clearly did have a right to trial by jury), but that it does explain, among other lines of jurisprudence, nearly all of the Court's military justice case law, and the power of non-Article III federal courts in the insular territories (where the jury-trial provisions arguably don't apply) to try all criminal offenses.
In other words, instead of relying upon a settled line of non-Article III precedent (pursuant to which, contra Judge Higginson's dissent, non-Article III judges are allowed to try petty offenses), the Fifth Circuit unnecessarily (and, in my view, improperly) extended Palmore--a troubling enough precedent in its own right--to allow Congress to subject all offenses committed on federal territories to trial by magistrate judges.
Thursday, April 09, 2015
Lost faith in the courts
But RFRA laws do not grant an unrestrained license to exclude or discriminate. With the exception of some state bills, which were opposed even by champions of religious accommodation and which failed, most RFRAs (including Indiana’s) do not compel any result. What they do require is balancing.
The problem is where left/liberal/progressive advocates are on judicial enforcement of individual rights right now and their attitudes towards the current Supreme Court. The assumption is that any balancing done by this Court--the Court that gave us Hobby Lobby*--will always, unavoidably, and automatically favor the religious believer against the woman or LGBTQ person being disadvantaged in the marketplace. Any balancing will be informed by the pro-religion preferences of that five-Justice majority and the claim for accommodation will always prevail over anti-discrimination statutes and principles. So saying that RFRA does not compel a result but only balancing is no comfort, because one side believes it knows how that balancing is going to come out.
* When does Hobby Lobby replace Citizens United as the single-case synonym for everything wrong with the Roberts Court?
Thursday, April 02, 2015
Where have you gone, Mary Beth Tinker?
Recent incidents of universities expelling students for racist or offensive speech have included an interesting feature--none of the students seem inclined to sue or otherwise contest the punishments as violating the First Amendment. The two guys from Oklahoma have been on a Regret Tour, seemingly apologizing to every African-American they can find (including random Oklahoma legislators). A story described one of them as having "withdrawn" from OU (interesting language given that OU President David Boren made it very clear that he had expelled them). The University of Maryland went after one student for sending racist emails and the student left, at least for a semester, by "mutual consent." This despite the fact that most commentators believe, doctrinally at least, that expulsion for the speech in these cases violates the First Amendment.
One explanation is that the social norms against racist and other offensive speech have so taken hold that people "caught" engaging in such expression do not want to own or defend it in public. Given the social reproach that they are subject to, ordinary people (as opposed to truly hateful sociopaths such as Fred Phelps) no longer want to fight for the right to say what they did or for the underlying principle that offensive speech is protected. They instead run and hide to let the storm blow over. From a social standpoint, it perhaps is good for norms of equality to take hold.
From a legal standpoint, however, it is unfortunate. Legal rights are lost if not exercised and defended or if those who violate those rights are not called to account. In this context, that requires the speaker to challenge the punishment in court. Moreover, the reluctance to sue increases the power of university officials to impose constitutionally suspect punishment. As one emailer put it, a university president can impose any punishment he wants, "effectively daring the frat members to call his or her bluff."
I have no evidence for this notion, but I wonder if the students are not essentially settling--they agree not to sue, they step away from school for a semester or two, then they are allowed to return once things have quieted down.
Wednesday, April 01, 2015
Ongoing conflicts over campus speech
Short story in the Chronicle of Higher Ed on various new controversies over offensive speech on college campuses, including at Oklahoma, Penn State, Maryland, Bucknell, and Mary Washington.
I would suggest the last two paragraphs, involving three students expelled for using racist epithets on the campus radio station, captures the disconnect and the inherent contradcition (yes, Bucknell is private and can do whatever it wants as a First Amendment matter, but it illustrates the prevailing attitude towards expression):
In an interview Tuesday, Bravman, Bucknell’s president, said that he and his university strongly support free speech and due process. He would not comment on the context of the language, but said that no matter the context, the three students crossed a line.
“There’s no question about that,” Bravman said. “This was hate speech. We own the station and the equipment, and the students were acting as agents of the university. They violated our community standards, and that’s really what this comes down to.”
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Is § 1983 superfluous?
I do not have a whole lot to say about Tuesday's decision in Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Center, although I look forward to reading Steve's (no doubt blistering) comments. But I do wonder about the question posed in the title, as well as whether I need to rethink how I teach Ex Parte Young.
The majority and dissent agreed that Ex Parte Young--formally, an action for "injunctive relief against state [and federal] officers who are violating, or planning to violate, federal law"--is a long-standing creation of courts of equity, rather than a product of the Supremacy Clause. They disagreed over whether the Medicaid Act impliedly limited the availability of such an equitable action--Justice Scalia's majority opinion said it did, Justice Sotomayor's dissent said no. In particular, Sotomayor distinguished this type of equitable action from both § 1983 "and laws" actions and implied statutory actions, insisting that Congress must affirmatively override the former, while the latter are available only if Congress creates and permits them.
How does this affect § 1983? That statute allows for "an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress" against a "person" acting under color of state law who deprives the plaintiff of a right secured by the Constitution. I generally explain Ex Parte Young, at least in constitutional actions, as an interpretation of § 1983--the state executive officer is a person, enforcing or threatening to enforce an unconstitutional law deprives the plaintiff of a right secured, and the request for injunctive relief makes this a suit in equity.*
* For similar reasons, I have always believed that using Young to enforce federal employment statutes (ADA, ADEA, FLSA) against states (thus easing the effect of the 11th Amendment) was incoherent, since the applicable statutes being enforced only regulated the employer, not the individual state official who would be enjoined.
But the position unanimously reflected today is that an individual could enjoin an executive officer from enforcing an unconstitutional or preempted law without § 1983. So what is the point of the "suit in equity" language if the equitable action predates 1871 and would exist without that statutory language? **This question is placed in sharper relief in the dissent, which acknowledges that § 1983 allows for many different remedies, but then lumps them all together under that statute in distinction to the free-standing equitable action.
** Just to clarify: My superfluousness concern is only as to the "suit in equity" clause, not for actions in law (i.e., retroactive relief), which still requires § 1983.
Monday, March 30, 2015
Why state officials fall in line
If, as I have been arguing for the past two months, an injunction and opinion barring enforcement of a state's SSM ban has no formal effect on anyone other than the parties, the question becomes why state officials ever voluntarily change their behavior absent a binding court order and why they do not instead always force new litigation and a new, directly controlling court order.
One reason is attorney's fees, which can escalate pretty quickly. See, for example, Wisconsin, where the state agreed to pay more than $ 1 million in attorney's fees to the ACLU for successfully challenging that state's SSM ban. True, the fees would be nowhere near this high for an individual Alabama probate judge forcing a new couple to sue him to obtain a license. But even low-level fees may provide an incentive for officials to fall in line, even if not formerly obligated to do so.
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
If not Holmes, then Kennedy?
Ron Collins discusses a new book by First Amendment scholar Burt Neuborne, Madison's Music: On Reading the First Amendment. NYU Law hosted a program on the book last week, featuring Justice Sotomayor. In the book, Neuborne refers to Justice Kennedy as "the most important First Amendment Judge that has ever sat on the Supreme Court."
When his book The Great Dissent was published in 2013, Thomas Healy had an exchange with Mike Dorf in which he wondered who might have led the charge on free speech had Holmes not changed his mind in Abrams; Healy ran through a number of names but found all lacking. In my new article, I argue that Justice Brennan (who Healy did not mention in his blog post) would have been the justice to take that lead, discussing the various areas in which Brennan set out (or tried to set out) a uniquely speech-protective First Amendment vision and often succeeded in pulling majorities with him.
Neuborne's book and his comments at NYU present Kennedy as another answer to that question. In the paper, I refer to Kennedy as Brennan's "speech-protective heir," particularly once he had been on the Court for a few years. So could/would Kennedy have been that First Amendment leader without Holmes or Brennan before him (put to one side the impossibility of the counter-factual)? In many areas--notably corporate speech and campaign finance--Kennedy outstrips Brennan in protecting expression. Quantitative studies (one by Eugene Volokh and one by Ashutosh Bhagwat) reveal Kennedy's voting record to overwhelmingly favor free-speech claimants.
I did not think of Kennedy when I was writing the paper. Partly this is because the paper focuses on the First Amendment connections between Holmes and Brennan. Partly this is because Kennedy remains on the Court, so it is more difficult to assess him within the bigger historic picture.
More problematically, Kennedy's First Amendment near-absolutism gets lost in the unfortunately simplistic liberal/conservative rhetoric used to describe the Court, which overlaps with the newish trend that protection of free speech is not the automatically liberal position (as it generally was in Brennan's day). And there is the even-more-simplistic view of Kennedy as the swing vote who tips the balance in every case and at whom the attorneys all direct their arguments (this notion is captured in the line, which I have heard over and over from a practicing attorney, that "you don't count to 5, you count to Kennedy"). Whatever the truth of that view in many constitutional cases, it simply is not true in First Amendment cases. Kennedy is a sure thing for the free-speech claimant; lawyers need to worry about people like Justice Breyer.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
"The Theocracy Brief"?
At the Crime and Consequences blog, which is a project of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, there is a post by Kent Scheidegger called "The Theocracy Brief," which takes issue with the amicus brief filed by the National Catholic Reporter in Glossip v. Gross (the SCOTUS case involving Oklahoma's lethal-injection procedures). Here's the primary part of the post:
Some briefs are just downright weird. In Glossip v. Gross, the midazolam lethal injection case, the National Catholic Reporter has submitted an amicus briefpurporting to explain the teachings of the Catholic Church on the subject. I have no opinion on whether what they say is correct. I know nothing about it. I do have an opinion on whether what they say has any relevance. It does not.
Last time I checked, the United States of America was not a theocracy. Quite the contrary, one of the cornerstones of the foundation of our government was a rejection of the mingling of church and state that had caused such enormous trouble in the Mother Country.
If Islamic teachings say it's okay to behead people,* would that make beheading constitutional under the Eighth Amendment? Of course not. So why would the teachings of the Catholic Church have any greater relevance? Because five of the current Justices of the Supreme Court happen to be Catholic? I am quite sure all five have the integrity not to let such an argument influence them.
* I don't know if they do, and truth of the "if" is not necessary to the point being made.
As it happens, the amicus brief has an entire section dedicated to explaining why the teachings of the Catholic Church with respect to capital punishment are, or at least could be, relevant to the particular question presented in this case. It seems to me that Mr. Scheidegger's "theocracy" charge is misplaced.
Obviously, the Church's teachings as such are not binding or authoritative on the Court when it answers legal questions and, generally speaking, whether or not the Church approves of this or that has nothing to do with questions about what the Constitution says (or doesn't) about this or that. But, in this particular context, the Court's own precedents and doctrines seem to make relevant "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society" and so there seems to be nothing particularly strange -- and certainly nothing "theocratic" -- about an amicus brief that says, in effect, "given that you have told us you are interested in what people think about the matter, here's what a whole lot of us think about the matter, and here's why. Just FYI."
Monday, March 23, 2015
A Texas bill that is both stupid and unconstitutional
There are stupid laws, there are unconstitutional laws, and then there is this bill introduced in the Texas House by Rep. Jason Villalba. The bill would define "interruption,disruption, impediment, or interference" with police (already a crime) to include a person "filming, recording, photographing, or documenting the officer within 25 feet of the officer," 100 feet if the person is carrying a handgun. The bill includes an exception for mainstream news media (defined in the bill). Breitbart Texas has a story, including reactions from various advocacy groups and Rep. Villalba's efforts to defend his creation on Twitter by insisting that it protects police without prohibiting recording or efforts to hold police accountable.
Assuming that recording public events is protected First Amendment activity (the Fifth Circuit has yet to decide the issue), this law would be in an immense amount of trouble. Where to begin?It is not clear how the simple act of filming, recording, or documenting from 22 feet away, without more, can constitute "interruption, disruption, impediment, or interference." Certainly, a general prohibition on interference could be applied to expressive activity and need only survive intermediate scrutiny under O'Brien. But defining expressive activity as interference raises different constitutional issues. The only interference/impediment from recording alone is that the act of being recorded will cause the officer to change his behavior lest he be caught on camera doing something wrong. If that is the goal, the law would have to satisfy strict scrutiny.
The bill treats expressive conduct differently than non-expressive conduct that implicates the same government concerns. A person who is not "filming, recording, photographing, or documenting" can be within the 25-foot mark, even if he has a handgun. In other words, where I can go depends on whether I am engaging in expressive activity. But if being within 25 feet of the officer interferes, it interferes whether the person is recording or just watching the events. A 25-foot buffer zone around police officers probably might be permissible; limiting that buffer zone only to those engaged in expressive activity is not. That makes the law underinclusive. And worse, it is underinclusive in a way that singles out expressive over non-expressive conduct.
The differential treatment of the mainstream media from non-traditional media and individuals cannot survive strict scrutiny (I doubt it could survive rational basis review), which applies when a law regulates based on speaker identity. Again, no way it survives strict scrutiny, because there is no reason that MSM recording is different from individual or blogger recording in terms of the government interest.
Finally, the real effect of this bill is less on bystander witnesses than on suspects or those in immediate contact with suspects. People directly involved in confrontations with police--themselves or their friends--will not be permitted to record when the police initiate contact. In other words, no Eric Garner video. The cynic in me says that is Villalba really is trying to do.
This has no chance of surviving constitutional scrutiny. It should have little chance of passing. The question is how much this guy wants to stick to his guns. The interesting question is, based on the Breitbart piece, it is Republicans/Libertarians/conservatives who are pushing back on this.
The First Amendment and the Redskins trademark, Part I: Government speech
The following post is by Robert L. Tsai and Christine Haight Farley (both of American); it is the first several guest posts on the Washington Professional Football Team trademark case. It is cross-posted at the Sports Law Blog
The ACLU recently filed an amicus brief in the Washington Redskins trademark case, arguing that the Patent and Trademark Office’s (PTO) cancellation of Redskins registrations constitutes viewpoint discrimination contrary to the First Amendment, and urging the federal court to strike down those portions of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act that prohibit the registration of “immoral,” “scandalous,” or “disparage[ing]” marks. We are deeply concerned with the ACLU’s position. Its proposal to thrust First Amendment law into an area of commercial regulation in unprecedented ways would wreak havoc with trademark law’s careful balance of concerns for property rights, economic exchange, and consumer protection. We believe that the ACLU’s fundamental misunderstanding of trademark law has caused it to misapply First Amendment doctrine.
In this first post, we wish to focus on the ACLU’s invocation of two First Amendment doctrines: viewpoint discrimination and unconstitutional conditions (we leave for a separate post whether the commercial speech doctrine might be appropriate). The ACLU’s position erroneously elides the various forms of government regulation and their contexts, treating trademark law like criminal law, municipal ordinances dealing with protests, laws creating public fora, and public subsidies. But the strongest First Amendment doctrines designed to ensure robust public debate simply don’t map on to trademark regulation without creating a major upheaval in trademark law. First Amendment doctrine requires strict scrutiny whenever there is a direct, content-based regulation of private speech. The federal trademark registry, however, does not operate like a direct regulation of private speech, nor does it create a forum for the expression of private speech.Congress’s power to regulate trademarks flows from, and is constrained by its constitutional authority over interstate commerce. Federal registration of a mark confers certain benefits (e.g., registration is treated as prima facie evidence of validity and ownership of a mark, gives a nationwide priority over subsequent users, and offers access to certain remedies), but it does not create rights. These advantages are more procedural in nature than substantive, closer to internal court rules than criminal laws, permit ordinances, or public subsidies. Trademark rights are instead established by common law from the actual commercial use of the mark; these rights can be asserted in federal court without a registration. It is in this crucial sense that the Lanham Act does not directly regulate expression as such—certainly not in the same way that a criminal law preventing offensive speech, a regulation banning parades without a permit, or even laws that subsidize private speech do. Section 2(a) does not prohibit the utterance of the word “Redskins” or attach any conditions on anyone’s use of that term.
This provision simply refuses to confer the benefits of registration on the Washington football team. The team would still retain the right to assert itself as the first and exclusive user of the term for commercial purposes under federal law. Consequently, the provision offers the Native American challengers in this case only the possibility of a symbolic victory—there would be no need for the team to change its name as it may still use and enforce the mark. Section 2(a) neither chills the free expression of ideas nor inhibits robust public debate.
Unable to point to a public forum or a direct inhibition of expression, the ACLU contends that the PTO registry imposes an unconstitutional condition on speech. In support of this proposition, the ACLU cites Legal Services Corporation v. Velazquez, where the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that prevented publicly-funded legal services lawyers from challenging “existing law.” As Robert has discussed elsewhere, this restriction of subsidized advocacy was tantamount to a ban on anti-government speech. But there is nowhere near the same threat to freedom of expression entailed by Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act—it is not even in the same ballpark. After cancellation of its registration, the Washington football team remains just as free to use the Redskins marks, in commerce or political discourse. Moreover, the fact that registration is cancelled in no way inhibits the mark user’s legally-oriented expression or distorts the normal operations of the legal system, two findings central to the Velazquez ruling. Section 2(a) does not restrict what lawyers can say in court and does not even prevent the mark’s owner from relying on statutory and common law trademark doctrines. It imposes no condition whatsoever on non-commercial expression. As Adam Cox and Adam Samaha have shown, truly unconstitutional conditions are rare, and virtually every constitutional issue can be reframed as an allegedly unconstitutional condition (as the ACLU has done). It is a mistake to do that here.
Closer examination of the idea of viewpoint discrimination shows that it doesn’t really capture how Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act actually works. That concept has been invoked in cases where there is a serious fear of chilling of political speech, i.e., when one side in a debate has to fight with an arm tied behind her back. But there’s no serious concern that anyone’s ideological message is hampered or distorted by the Lanham Act.
Section 2(a) does not turn on a speaker’s actual perspective on an issue. It instead permits an objective determination that a mark, regardless of the owner’s viewpoint, will be perceived as disparaging by the referenced group when used in commerce. Someone who wishes to coopt a disparaging term for positive ends may be barred from registry just as someone whose intended use is to disparage. Thus, Section 2(a) operates without regard to the ideological intention of a speaker. For example, the PTO refused the registration of the mark “The Slants” finding it was disparaging to Asian Americans despite the fact that the applicant was a band whose members are Asian and who intended to take on stereotypes about Asians. The applicant’s viewpoint was irrelevant.
Moreover, enforcement of Section 2(a) does not prevent the utterance of noncommercial pro-Redskins speech, just as it does not prohibit the utterance of non-commercial anti-Redskins speech. Decisions like Rosenberger v. Rectors of Virginia and R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul are simply inapposite.
We think that the best analogue for this type of government regulation is government speech. Under that body of caselaw, the PTO registry constitutes “government speech” rather than regulation of private speech. The doctrine permits government-wide latitude to design its own programs and express its own views, consistent with Congress’s mix of commercial and ideological goals. Reliance on this doctrine would recognize that the PTO registry simply is not a forum created for the exchange of private ideas; rather, it is a tool to facilitate Congress’s goals of regulating interstate commerce and protecting a diverse population of consumers from business practices that foster racial discrimination and stereotyping. These core programmatic goals place Section 2(a) well within the reasoning of two government-speech rulings by the Supreme Court: Rust v. Sullivan, where Congress barred government-funded doctors from advising about the availability of abortion, and FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, which permitted Congress to protect listeners from “obscene, indecent, or profane” broadcasts.
Accepting the ACLU’s invitation to apply First Amendment law maximally to the PTO registry would improperly convert the registry into a free speech forum. It would force the PTO to register all manner of marks, interfering with the government’s delicate balance of regulatory objectives.
A ruling in this case against the football team does express the government’s belief, after careful fact finding, that the term “Redskins,” as used by the Washington football team in commerce, is disparaging to an entire group of people. Under the government speech doctrine, Congress is free to express the view that racially-inflected commerce is wrong, that certain ideas harm consumers in a pluralistic marketplace, and that government sanction of the trademark’s usage might inhibit commercial activity. The PTO, relying on Section 2(a), has expressed that view here, leaving private actors at liberty to agree or disagree.
Finally, consider what actually happens when the PTO refuses to register a mark on the ground that it is “disparaging.” It means that the mark owner cannot claim that the federal government has endorsed or supported that expression for commercial reasons. But he or she can continue to use it in public debate. Moreover, to the extent that the benefits of registration hinder the mark owner from excluding others from using the term in commercial activity, the absence of a registration guarantees a more robust public debate. That result seems far more consistent with ensuring wide-open conversation on matters of public importance than a federal court ruling invalidating this portion of Section 2(a).
The emergence of political hate
An interesting take on hyper-partisanship and deeper political commitments from Keith Humphreys at RBC. But is he right about this being a new phenomenon? I am not so sure.
People hated Lincoln so much they tried to leave the country. Some of the rhetoric directed against, say, Jefferson or Andrew Jackson or FDR was as hateful and hate-filled as anything directed at Clinton, GWB, or Obama, or that will be directed at Hillary. And as for the niche press, the image of the impartial press dates, at the earliest, to the mid-19th century. If we go back to the Founding, there was a Federalist press and an Anti-Federalist press and the lines between them were clear and the rhetoric emerging from them was hostile much in the way Keith describes--that is why John Adams wanted the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Scope of injunctions
A recurring problem in the marriage-equality litigation--not only in Alabama, although it has obviously reared its head there--is confusion about the scope of a civil rights injunction and declaratory judgment. The constant refrain from me and many others is that any injunction applies only as to the named defendant(s) and as to the named plaintiffs. The injunction--as opposed to the court's reasoning and the power of precedent--does not legally compel anyone else to do anything or for the defendant to do anything as to any person not named as a plaintiff. But there has been pushback (particularly in a Con Law prof listserv conversation), particularly over the lack of SCOTUS precedent explicitly establishing this point.
In both cases, multiple people wanted to engage in particular conduct but were prohibited from doing so by a state or local law--handbilling outside a shopping center in Steffel, perating nude-dancing establishments in Doran--that arguably violated the First Amendment. Also in both cases, one person was a defendant in an ongoing state criminal prosecution. And in both cases, SCOTUS held that Younger did not bar the action by those people who were not parties to those ongoing state proceedings. The key was that the federal action (and resulting injunction or declaratory judgment) would not interfere with any ongoing state proceeding, since the federal plaintiffs were not involved in any such proceedings, so there were no comity problems.
But implicit in both decisions is that the federal injunction also would not interfere with the pending proceeding against a different person, even when instituted by the same government official. In other words, enjoining Doran from prosecuting Salem Inn did not prohibit him from continuing to prosecute M&L (the bar that had violated the ordinance and been issued a summons) and enjoining Thompson from prosecuting Steffel did not prohibit him from continuing to prosecute Steffel's friend (who already had been charged with criminal trespass). This must mean that the injunction binds only the named defendant as to the named plaintiff. At most, the federal court's reasoning might convince the official to drop the state case. But he would not have been "ignoring" or "defying" the federal court to continue with the state proceeding against someone other than the federal plaintiff because he carried no legal obligation as to any other person. If enjoining Doran as to Salem also would have enjoined him as to M&L, then the Younger analysis would have changed, because the injunction as to Salem would have interfered with the ongoing state proceeding.
We can see the parallel to the federal litigation in Alabama. A federal court has enjoined Probate Judge Don Davis from enforcing the state's SSM ban as to the four or five couples in Strawser, just as the federal court enjoined Doran not to enforce the nude-dancing ordinance against Salem. But that injunction cannot prohibit Davis from enforcing the ban as to any other non-party couple (by not granting them a license), just as the injunction could not prohibit Doran from enforcing the ordinance against M&L, which no longer was a party to the federal action.
Again, SCOTUS did not speak about the scope of injunctions in either Doran or Steffel. But it clearly understood injunctions in this way. And that, it seems to me, resolves at least this part of the shouting in Alabama.
Judge Granade refused to stay the preliminary injunction against Probate Judge Don Davis ordering him not to enforce the state SSM ban in deciding on marriage licenses. The linked story insists that this now creates a conflict for Davis, as he remains under both the state mandamus declaring the SSM ban constitutionally valid and prohibiting him from issuing licenses to same-sex couples and a federal injunction declaring the ban invalid and ordering him to issue licenses.
But is there actually a conflict? Granade has not yet acted on the plaintiffs' motion to amend and certify a class action. Without that, what we have against him is a federal declaratory judgment of constitutional invalidity that is persuasive-only and an injunction that he already has satisfied as to the currently named plaintiffs (there are four or five at this point, all of whom have been granted licenses). So Davis is under no current federal obligation to issue a license to anyone who does not already have one, thus he faces no conflict with the mandamus prohibiting him from issuing licenses to same-sex couples. Judge Granade's opinion by itself imposes no obligation on him to do anything, so it alone does not create conflicting obligations. That is the fundamental mistake everyone is making.
Fortuitously, here is Will Baude (Chicago) making a similar argument in The Times,* not as to marriage but as to the Affordable Care Act. Baude argues that, if the plaintiffs prevail in King, the administration can comply with the Court's judgment as to the four named plaintiffs, but continue granting subsidies to everyone else, since the Court's order does not apply to them and nothing requires the government to extend the reasoning of an opinion to other people. (H/T: My colleague Tom Baker, who refers to this as the "Dred Scott Move"). In essence, the state mandamus is forcing Davis to do the same--not extend Judge Granade's reasoning to other couples.
If the administration can legally (even if not politically) do this with a Supreme Court opinion, then certainly Don Davis can legally do this with an opinion from Judge Granade.
* On a different note: The headline on Will's op-ed--Could Obama Bypass the Supreme Court--perfectly captures the media's fundamental confusion about how judicial decisionmaking operates. Will's very point is that Obama would not be bypassing the Supreme Court at all in doing this, that he would be complying with the Court's order but not extending its reasoning, which typically is done only as a matter of convenience (to avoid getting sued again and again), not legal obligation. So in no way would this be "bypassing" anything. The headline writer clearly missed that point.
Monday, March 16, 2015
Defending the barely defensible
This weekend, I published two guest commentaries for JURIST defending some reprehensible folks. First, I argue that Oklahoma's expulsion of the SAE members over the racist chant on the bus probably violates the First Amendment. Second, I try to bring some procedural sanity to the discussion of same-sex marriage in Alabama (this puts together everything I have been writing here for the past month or so).
Friday, March 13, 2015
Stacking the rhetorical deck
I think we can agree on the following two propositions: 1) It is a bad thing when someone shoots a police officer. 2) It is a bad thing when a police officer shoots an unarmed 11-year-old or chokes to death a man selling loose cigarettes.
But only the critics/reformers/protesters of police abuse are forced to fall all over themselves to condemn a shooting that has nothing to do with them. There is no similar pressure on police or police officials to disavow an absurd pattern of abuse by their fellow officers. In fact, police (quite literally) turn on any public official who dares to criticize one of their own.
So the story is now going to be that President Obama did not quickly or forcefully enough condemn a shooting that no rational thinks was right and that has nothing to do with efforts to reform police pratices, but not a documented pattern of police abuses that some people are still defending.
Thursday, March 12, 2015
Maybe the ACLU has given up on free speech
Via Ron Collins at CoOp, here are two statements from the leadership of the Oklahoma ACLU, applauding the president's decision to punish the students, but calling on him to ensure that the students receive due process. No mention of the First Amendment.
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
First Amendment suspended at Oklahoma?
The two Oklahoma University students leading the racist chant aboard an SAE party bus have been expelled, according to a statement by the university's president, because they created a hostile learning environment for others. The president emphasized that the speech "impacted the entire university community as it was also distributed on social media."
I have no idea if the students will sue, as they may just want to crawl back under their rock. But if they do go to court, no way the expulsion can withstand First Amendment scrutiny, right? "Hostile learning environment" is not a recognized category of unprotected speech, unless you can squeeze it into some pre-existing category such as fighting words, true threats, or incitement and this plainly is neither.
Wow, between Roy Moore and these schmucks, I'm on a roll this month.
Update: Eugene Volokh weighs in, reaching the same conclusion that this expulsion is improper. He focuses on several points, including that racist speech remains fully protected (outside of threats or fighting words), as do references to violence that are not immediately threatening.
Monday, March 09, 2015
I see your mandamus and raise you a class action
In response to last week's Writ of Mandamus by the Supreme Court of Alabama, the plaintiffs in Strawser have moved to amend the complaint to add some new plaintiffs and one new probate-judge defendant and to have the entire thing certified as a plaintiff and defendant class action. (H/T: Lyle Denniston). If successful, the move will allow Judge Granade to enjoin every probate judge to issue a license to every same-sex couple in the state.
It also seems to set-up a direct conflict between orders of a state supreme court and a lower federal court, although that may be more illusory than real. The arguments surrounding the mandamus recognize that the mandamus only controlled judges not under a federal injunction requiring them to issue licenses; recall that Judge Don Davis (at the time the only probate judge subject to an injunction) was ordered to show that he was under the injunction, presumably to be released from the mandamus. By those terms, if a class injunction issues, every probate judge should be given an opportunity to make that showing, after which the mandamus should give way.
Wednesday, March 04, 2015
ACLU responds to Ron Collins
So, it appears I was sort-of right. As ACLU Exec Director Anthony Romero responds to Ron Collins, the organizations Workplan excluded free expression because other civil liberties issues involve bigger, broader, more systematic challenges involving more coordinated efforts. Free expression involves one-off individual cases into which both the national office and, especially, local affiliates regularly get involved, but which are less in need of coordinated national efforts. So it is not that the ACLU has declared victory, but that the nature of challenges to free expression are different than the challenges in other civil liberties areas.
Is this a satisfying explanation?
Update: As if to prove its point that it still loves the First Amendment and is still willing to defend the liberty of loathsome speakers to say loathsome things: The ACLU filed an amicus in the dispute over the Washington NFL Team nickname, arguing that the Lanham Act limitation on "disparaging" trademarks is viewpoint discriminatory and violates the First Amendment. (H/T: Ron, who heard directly from ACLU Exec Director Anthony Romero).
Missing the signals
Ed: This post originally was published under Dan's name because I was inadvertently signed-in on our administrative password. My apologies.
The worst thing that can be said about the Supreme Court of Alabama's mandamus decision (besides its legal reasoning, which on a quick read seems wrong and somewhat intemperate) is that the court disregarded the "signals" that have been emanating from the Court since the fall (if not since Windsor itself) about the likely outcome on this issue. A question for the signalling people (Richard and others): Does a lower court act inappropriately if it ignores (willfully or otherwise) signals and insists on applying only the formally established precedent? In a way, this feels like another aspect of the question of whether lower courts should decide cases by attempting to "predict" what SCOTUS will do or by applying their own best judgment and analysis to reach what they believe is the correct result.
Tuesday, March 03, 2015
Adam beat me to the announcement of the Supreme Court of Alabama issuing the mandamus ordering all non-enjoined probate judges to cease issuing marriage licenses (it is nice to have another Fed Courts geek around for a month). I have written about the mandamus petition before, but I will repeat the key points.
SCOTA is going out of its way to make its voice heard on marriage equality. This is arrogant and probably wrong, since none of the arguments against SSM hold water. But it cannot be regarded as "defiant" in any way, since the court is not acting in defiance of any legal authority.
This ultimately is entirely symbolic. As Adam notes, the mandamus order makes clear that it does not/will not apply to Judge Davis to the extent he is under the federal injunction to issue licenses to anyone. Presumably, any later-issued federal injunctions, against Davis or any other probate judge as to any other couples, will be grounds to release that judge from the mandamus, thereby avoiding any conflict with a federal order (this was Alabama's position in opposing a motion in the Southern District to stay the mandamus action). The mandamus solidifies the legal status quo--anyone wanting a license must sue the appropriate probate judge and obtain a federal court injunction.
Two wrinkles. First is that the probate-judge defendant in that future federal action may try to argue abstention, although I expect the argument to fail, for the same reasons it failed in Oklahoma and South Carolina. Second, I wonder if anyone will ask SCOTUS to stay the mandamus pending review. [Update: An emailer reminds me that SCOTUS review might be impossible, since no license-seeker is a party to the state court action. One of the respondent probate judges would have to petition, but I don't know that any of them cares enough to appeal.]
Alabama Supreme Court Enjoins Probate Judges from Issuing Marriage Licenses to Same-Sex Couples
As you may know (Howard has had some excellent coverage), we’re in the midst of a real-life fed-courts hypo here in Alabama as litigation continues over the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. There was another development this evening, when the Alabama Supreme Court issued a 134-page per curiam opinion enjoining Alabama probate judges from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The ruling was prompted by a petition for a writ of mandamus that was filed earlier this month by two groups opposing same-sex marriage, purporting to be “relators” for the State of Alabama. The petition named four probate judges who had been issuing same-sex marriage licenses as respondents, and designated all other Alabama probate judges as “Judge Does ##1-63.” One of those Doe judges, Judge Enslen of Elmore County, sought to have the Alabama ban enforced and was redesignated as an additional relator-petitioner.
This evening’s order acknowledges that one Alabama probate judge—Judge Davis of Mobile County—is the subject of a federal injunction issued by Judge Callie Granade, who back in January had declared Alabama’s ban unconstitutional.
Here’s the full text of the order that appears at the end of today’s Alabama Supreme Court opinion:
The named respondents are ordered to discontinue the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Further, and pursuant to relator Judge Enslen's request that this Court, "by any and all lawful means available to it," ensure compliance with Alabama law with respect to the issuance of marriage licenses, each of the probate judges in this State other than the named respondents and Judge Davis are joined as respondents in the place of the "Judge Does" identified in the petition. Within five business days following the issuance of this order, each such probate judge may file an answer responding to the relator's petition for the writ of mandamus and showing cause, if any, why said probate judge should not be bound hereby. Subject to further order of this Court upon receipt and consideration of any such answer, each such probate judge is temporarily enjoined from issuing any marriage license contrary to Alabama law as explained in this opinion. As to Judge Davis's request to be dismissed on the ground that he is subject to a potentially conflicting federal court order, he is directed to advise this Court, by letter brief, no later than 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, March 5, 2015, as to whether he is bound by any existing federal court order regarding the issuance of any marriage license other than the four marriage licenses he was ordered to issue in Strawser.
If you want to get up to speed on what’s been going on, you can find copies of all the important orders, filings, and other documents at the Civil Procedure & Federal Courts Blog.
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Another twist in the march to marriage equality
Two weeks ago, Judge Granade enjoined Mobile Probate Judge Don Davis to stop enforcing the state's SSM ban and to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Last week, Davis refused to grant a second-parent adoption to Cari Searcy and Kimberly McKeand, the plaintiffs in the first action in which Judge Granade invalidated the state ban. Davis entered an interlocutory decree granting Searcy temporary parental rights, but declining to issue a final adoption order until after SCOTUS decides the Marriage Cases this spring. Searcy and McKeand have filed a new action against Davis, seeking not only an injunction, but also compensatory and punitive damages (I have not been able to find the complaint).
First, this illustrates the importance of determining the true and proper scope of an injunction. In Strawser, the Court enjoined Davis from enforcing the SSM ban and to issue licenses to Strawser and some other named plaintiffs. But that is the limit of the court order. It does not and cannot apply to enforcing (or not) the SSM ban as to anyone else or in any other context. Thus, the argument that Davis is bound by any court order to grant this adoption is wrong. Otherwise, we have, at most, persuasive authority that the SSM ban is unconstitutional, nothing more.
Second, this new lawsuit seems to have other problems. Adoption decisions by probate judges, unlike decisions to grant or deny marriage licenses, appear to be judicial in nature, involving petitions, hearings, evidence, interlocutory and final orders, and appeals. This raises a couple of issues. First, if this is a judicial act, Davis is absolutely immune from damages--Davis was named in Searcy's original action and this was one argument he made in his motion to dismiss. And if Davis was acting in a judicial capacity, then under § 1983 the plaintiffs at this point can only obtain a declaratory judgment but not an injunction. Second, if this is a judicial act, this action should be barred by Rooker-Feldman--Searcy and McKeand are state court losers (they did not get the remedy they wanted in state court) and functionally are asking the federal court to reverse the state court decision. This argument is a bit weaker within the Eleventh Circuit, as there is some district court caselaw that Rooker-Feldman only applies to final state court decisions but not interlocutory orders. Still, if Davis was wrong to deny the adoption in a state judicial proceeding, the plaintiff's move is to appeal, not to run to federal court.
Update: Thanks to commenter Edward Still for sharing the Complaint, which is as bad as I thought. It asks for an injunction against a judge without having gotten a declaratory judgment; it asks for damages and attorney's fees against a judge for what the complaint itself makes clear is a judicial act; and it asks the district court to "strike" an order of a state-court judge and to command that state judge to grant parties relief. I am not big on Rule 11 sanctions against civil rights plaintiffs, but this one asks for so much that is so obviously legally barred by clear statutory language as to be a bit ridiculous.
Friday, February 20, 2015
Levels of Generality in Means/Ends Analysis
It is a familiar lesson of U.S. constitutional doctrine that the outputs of decision rules will sometimes depend on the level of generality with which their inputs are defined. This theme is perhaps most evident in substantive due process doctrine: Defining a liberty interest in broad terms can increase the likelihood of its qualifying as “fundamental,” just as defining the interest in narrow terms can reduce that likelihood. But generality levels can make a difference in other areas of the law as well. A “right” may be more likely to qualify as “clearly established” for purposes of a qualified immunity defense if we characterize that right broadly rather than narrowly, a “matter” may be more likely to qualify as “of a public concern” when the matter itself is defined abstractly rather than specifically, a “power” may be more likely to qualify as “great substantive and independent” (and hence not implied by the enumerated powers of Article I) if the power is described in general rather than specific terms, and so forth. In these and other contexts, the outcome of a doctrinal inquiry can depend not just on the content of its evaluative criteria (e.g., what does it mean for a right to be “fundamental”?, what matters are and are not of “public concern”?, what does it mean for a power to be “great substantive and independent”?, etc.), but also on how one defines/describes/characterizes the objects to which those criteria apply (e.g., what is the “liberty interest” whose “fundamentality” is at issue, what is the “matter” whose “public-concerned-ness” we are evaluating?, what is the “power” whose “greatness”/“independence” we are measuring?, etc.).
I’d originally figured that this insight applied with equal force to the various forms of means/ends analysis that pervade constitutional law. Means/ends analysis, after all, requires some estimation of the strength of a “government interest” said to justify a constitutionally suspect enactment, and the strength of that interest will in turn depend on the level of generality with which we define it. Think, for instance, of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. There the Court rejected an as-applied First Amendment challenge to the federal “material support” statute, brought by plaintiffs “seek[ing] to facilitate only the lawful, nonviolent purposes” of foreign groups designated to be terrorist organizations. One can define the government interest in HLP at different levels of generality. From most to least specific, the interest might be characterized as that of (1) “cutting off support for the lawful, nonviolent activities of foreign organizations designated as terrorist groups,” (2) “undermining foreign organizations designated to be terrorist groups,” (3) “undermining foreign terrorist groups,” (4) “combating terrorism,” or (5) “promoting national security,” with a bunch of intermediate options in between. And as the generality-level of the government interest increases, so too should the ease of demonstrating that interest’s overall importance. (All else equal, for instance, the government will have less difficulty in highlighting the vital importance of “national security” than that of “cutting off support for the lawful, nonviolent activities of foreign organizations designated to be terrorist groups.”) In that sense, means/ends analysis does indeed seem to be at least somewhat sensitive to changes in generality-levels, with increased generality levels yielding increased odds of a government-friendly result.
But things turn out not to be so simple, as something interesting happens when we proceed to ask whether the law is sufficiently closely related to the government interest we have identified. Here, we encounter something akin to the opposite relationship between generality-levels and justificatory ease: the more generally we have characterized the government interest, the more difficult it will become to show the requisite means/ends fit. It would not be difficult to show that the material support statute is “necessary to further” the government’s interest in “cutting off support for the lawful, nonviolent activities of foreign organizations designated as terrorist groups”—that objective, after all, is precisely what the material support statute purports to pursue. But would the law count as necessary to further the more generally defined interest in “promoting national security”? Maybe, but maybe not. The problem is that the government can “promote national security” in many more possible ways than it can “cut off support for the lawful, nonviolent activities of foreign organizations designated to be terrorist groups.” And the wider the range of potential means of achieving an interest, the more likely it becomes that a “less restrictive” or “less discriminatory” means will emerge from the heap—thus demonstrating that the chosen means was fatally over- or underinclusive with respect to the interest in question.
In other words, broadening our characterization of the government interest may make things easier for the government (and more difficult for the challengers) when evaluating the strength of the interest, but it will then make things more difficult for the government (and easier for the challengers) when evaluating the degree of fit between the interest and a challenged law.
That’s not to say that the government can’t ever win an argument about “means” where the relevant “end” has been defined in highly general terms. Indeed, the government did end up winning in HLP, notwithstanding the Court’s decision to characterize the government interest broadly rather than narrowly (the Court went with Option #4, “combating terrorism”). Rather, the point is that because it focuses attention on both means and ends, means/ends analysis may manage to mitigate the influence of generality-levels on the ultimate outcome of the test. One can ratchet-up the generality level of the government interest to assist in justifying the ends, but one must then pay a price when attempting to justify the means. And one can ratchet-down the generality level to assist in justifying the means, but one must then pay a price when attempting to justify the ends. As long as one maintains the same description of the government interest throughout the analysis, then there should be some level of equilibration across the two prongs of the test.
Now before anyone starts publishing banner headlines about this observation, let me identify a few grounds for skepticism. The hypothesis I've offered may turn out to be (a) false or (b) trivial:
- Why the hypothesis may be false: Even if everything I've said is right, it still might be true that the generality levels matter more at the first step of the inquiry than at the second. In other words, the chosen generality-level of the government interest may exert a major positive influence on whether or not that interest counts as “compelling,” “important,” “legitimate,” or what have you, while exerting only a minor negative influence on whether there is a sufficiently close fit between the interest itself and the law under review. If that is true, then means/ends analysis would remain highly susceptible to manipulation via characterizations of the relevant government interest, with the positive effects of high-generality at the “ends” stage of the inquiry drowning out its negative effects at the “means” stage of the inquiry.
- Why the hypothesis may be trivial: I can imagine two arguments to this effect—one grounded in cynicism and the other grounded in optimism, with both concerning the overall constraining effect of doctrinal rules.
- The cynic’s argument would maintain that even if means/ends analysis is not sensitive to fluctuations in the generality-level of a government interest, means/ends analysis as a whole remains malleable, manipulable, and ultimately non-constraining in a myriad other ways. A judge who is dead-set on upholding a law subject to strict scrutiny (or striking down a law subject to rational basis review) can always find always find the arguments necessary to justify the desired means/ends result, no matter what how generally or non-generally the interest has been defined. So the cynic would say, it doesn't much matter whether my hypothesis is right or wrong. Even if it is right, the outcomes will be what they will be because judges can and will manipulate other parts of the means/ends test to go where they want to go.
- The optimist’s argument would focus instead on what has thus far been an unstated (and undefended) premise of my argument—namely, that choices among generality-levels are to some extent arbitrary and difficult to predict ex ante. But if that point turns out to be false—if, in other words, there does exist a coherent, predictable, and defensible way of identifying the operative generality level of a given constitutional input, then any “equilibrating” or “self-regulating” process built-in to means/ends analysis would be of only marginal significance. Either way, the optimist would maintain, means/ends analysis would operate in a principled fashion—either levels of generality matter, in which case means/ends analysis is influenced by a principled legal choice, or levels of generality do not matter, in which case means/ends analysis will still be influenced by other principled legal choices.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Collins on Terrorist's Veto
Great post from Ron Collins at CoOp on the need for democratic society's to stand firm in the face of the terrorist veto, which he calls the "savage cousin of the heckler's veto."
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
And more crazy in Alabama
With briefing moving forward in the state mandamus action, the plaintiffs in Strawser have filed an Emergency Motion to Enforce the federal injunction, specifically by ordering Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange to assume control over the mandamus action and dismiss it; the government has responded. (H/T: Reader Edward Still, a civil rights attorney in Alabama). The gist of the plaintiffs' argument is that the Attorney General controls all litigation brought by or on behalf of the state, including through private relators; in order to comply with the injunction, which prohibits him from enforcing the state ban on same-sex marriage, he must end the state litigation.
The state's response is interesting for what it acknowledges about the mandamus action, confirming that it is largely symbolic and annoying.
First, the state acknowledges that the mandamus, if issued, cannot run against Probate Judge Don Davis of Alabama, who is a party in Strawser and is enjoined from denying licenses to same-sex couples. The state also acknowledges that, even if the mandamus issues, a couple denied a license could sue the denying probate judge in federal court and obtain an injunction, and that judge would be compelled to comply with that injunction. In other words, the state mandamus action does not set-up any conflict with the federal court or federal court orders, which the state acknowledges would trump the mandamus, whether existing orders or future orders. Thus, the sole effect of the mandamus would be to prevent non-party probate judges from being persuaded by Judge Granade's order or from issuing licenses so as to avoid suit and an award of attorney's fees. The only way they could issue licenses is if sued and ordered by a federal court to do so, which in turn has the effect of forcing every couple to sue every probate judge in the state. This is annoying and time-consuming. But, again, it does not reflect state defiance so much as state legal obstinacy.
Second, as has frequently been the case here, the big question is one of Alabama law--how much control the attorney general has over privately initiated litigation on behalf of the State. The Attorney General can seize control over litigation initiated as the state by local prosecutors and other executive officers; it is less clear whether he can do the same when suit is brought by private actors. The plaintiffs argue for a a broad understanding of FRCP 65 as to the scope of injunctions.
Third, as predicted, the state tries to play the abstention card. Also as predicted, they screwed it up. The state tries to argue that the Anti-Injunction Act bars the federal court from enjoining this pending state proceeding, emphasizing the narrowness of the statute's exceptions. But one exception is when Congress expressly authorizes an injunction by statute, which it did in enacting § 1983. Strawser and all other actions challenging SSM bans are § 1983 actions, so the AIA imposes no limit on the injunction here. The state also tries to argue Rooker-Feldman, a doctrine which also has no application here, since the plaintiffs are not state-court losers or even parties to the state court action.
Sunday, February 15, 2015
If possible, Alabama could get more confusing
Al Jolson said it best. Two anti-marriage-equality groups have filed a Petition for Writ of Mandamus in the Alabama Supreme Court's original jurisdiction, seeking an order preventing probate judges from issuing licenses on the strength of Judge Granade's decision and ordering them to wait until a "court of competent jurisdiction"--which petitioners define as only SCOTUS--decides the matter. The court ordered briefing on the petition, with two justices dissenting; Chief Justice Moore apparently took no part in the decision.
So how will this play out and what effect will it have?
This sort of mandamus action has been attempted before, in a slightly different context. In Oklahoma and South Carolina, state attorneys general sought to mandamus individual county clerks who intended to issue licenses in light of a federal appeals court decision invalidating SSM bans in other states. These clerks were under no federal injunction and there had been no decision addressing bans in their own states. But now-binding Fourteenth Amendment precedent made legally certain what would happen in any federal action challenging those bans, so the clerks were simply avoiding that lawsuit and injunction. The mandamus was intended to make the clerks wait and not to issue licenses unless and until compelled to do so.
In Alabama, probate judges other than Don Davis of Mobile who are issuing marriage licenses are doing so on the persuasive force of the district decision, but without an injunction. They, too, are trying to avoid a lawsuit, one whose outcome is both more and less obvious than in the other two cases. Here, there is only persuasive, and not binding, federal precedent, although it involves a declaration as to this state's marriage ban.
The mandamus action raises a whole series of state-law questions. One is whether these organizations have standing, as their only injury seems to be that probate judges are doing something the petitioners don't like. It also would require the court to conclude that a probate judge is forbidden (not simply not obligated, forbidden) from adhering to district court precedent. It is not clear whether the petition also will require the court to decide the constitutionality of its marriage ban, which would be the only federal issue in play; otherwise, any decision is insulated from SCOTUS review.
The mandamus petitioners rely on one fundamental misunderstanding--that the only court of competent jurisdiction to declare the state's marriage-equality ban unconstitutional is SCOTUS. This erroneously minimizes the effect of lower-court precedent. While only SCOTUS precedent binds state courts, here probate judges are performing administrative functions; they can be sued in federal court, where circuit court precedent will be binding and district court precedent is at least persuasive. Again, I really believe the question of federal precedent in state court is beside the point. And in taking this step, petitioners misunderstand that point.
Finally, if the mandamus issues, the real effect will depend on how broad the order is. If it simply applies until a probate judge comes under a federal-court injunction, then its effect is more practical than legal. Formally, no probate judge has any direct legal obligation to issue a license until sued in federal court and enjoined; the mandamus would simply provide a court order emphasizing that reality. It would force every couple seeking a license to sue every probate judge individually, rather than allowing couples to gain the benefit of persuasive authority. This is inconvenient and inefficient (although not costly, since plaintiffs should get attorney's fees), but not a significant change to the landscape of actual legal obligations. The mandamus also would open the door to the probate judges trying to raise Younger, Rooker-Feldman, Pullman, and Burford in the federal district court; this is what happened in both the Oklahoma and South Carolina cases, although both courts soundly and properly rejected those arguments.
On the other hand, if the mandamus bars probate judges from issuing any licenses until SCOTUS decides the issue of marriage equality, we have genuine problems. The inevitable federal injunction would set up the very direct conflict and confusion the petitioners purport to be trying to resolve. There actually would be directly conflicting orders--a state mandamus prohibiting every probate judge from issuing a license and a federal injunction commanding a named probate judge to do so.
Thursday, February 12, 2015
Now we have a meaningful federal order
The New York Times reports that Judge Granade has enjoined Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis from denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The injunction comes in Strawser v. Strange, an action by a male couple to obtain a license. In January, Judge Granade enjoined the attorney general from enforcing the ban on same-sex marriage, an injunction that, as we have seen, has no real effect on the issuance of marriage licenses. On Tuesday, the plaintiffs amended their complaint to add Judge Davis as a defendant.
So, since even the Times article linked above does not have it quite right, let's be clear on where we are now:
1) Judge Davis is legally obligated to issue a marriage license to Strawser and his future husband; if he fails to do so, he can (and probably will) be held in contempt.
2) Judge Davis probably is not obligated by the injunction to grant anyone else a license, since there are no other couples joined as plaintiffs, this was not brought as a class action, and Judge Davis does not exercise supervisory authority or control over other probate judges. But anyone in Mobile denied a license will be able to intervene or join as a plaintiff in Stawser and Judge Granade will immediately extend the injunction to cover the new plaintiffs. So Judge Davis should pretty well understand that he should issue licenses to everyone who requests one.
3) No other probate judge in the Southern District of Alabama is obligated by the injunction to grant anyone a license. But they all should be on notice that, if they fail to do so, they will end up before Judge Granade (either because a new action goes to her or because the new plaintiff jumps into Strawser and adds the next probate judge as defendant) and she will enjoin them.
4) No probate judge in the Middle or Northern District is obligated by the injunction to do anything, nor are they bound by the precedent of her opinion. Formally, it will take a new lawsuit by a different couple and a new opinion and injunction by a judge in each district. But as I wrote earlier in the week, I believe that, once one probate judge in the state had been enjoined, everyone else would fall in line, even if not yet legally obligated to do so. So while Roy Moore may continue to shout at the rain, I would be very surprised if any other probate judge bothers denying anyone else a license; it just is not worth the effort, as I cannot see a federal judge in either district reaching a different conclusion about the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans.
Update: Important addition: If a probate judge in situations ## 3-4 did decline to issue a license to anyone, they would not be acting in disregard or defiance of Judge Granade's order, which still does not bind them or compel them to do anything. And I feel pretty confident that Judge Davis would not be acting in defiance of the order in situation # 2. In other words, today's order likely will have the practical effect of getting probate judges statewide to fall in line; it does not have that legal effect.
Bazelon sort-of defends Roy Moore
Emily Bazelon makes a sort-of defense of Roy Moore in The New York Times Magazine, turning out many of the arguments I have been making here.
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Dorf on Roy Moore and Alabama
Mike Dorf's take on Roy Moore and the events in Alabama. Mike concludes "that while Chief Justice Moore's memo was a lawyerly piece of work, it ultimately does not advance his (distasteful) cause. It's at best a cover for his Faubusian agenda." He argues that Moore ultimately was playing a losing hand because couples always could sue the probate judges in federal court (because, as I have argued, issuing the licenses is not a judicial function). In playing it, therefore, Moore was simply trying to play Orval Faubus (or George Wallace, to keep it in the same retrograde state).
I agree that Moore likely is doing all this for bigoted reasons. But that is not necessarily established by the fact that the probate judges could be sued and enjoined. I never read Moore as denying that or denying that this would change the analysis and their obligations (certainly some probate judges recognized as much). Moreover, what difference should it make that Moore's position will ultimately prove a loser? The question is whether it is wrong to force the plaintiffs go through the process of establishing their legal rights and of not departing your preferred position (non-issuance) unless formally compelled to do so, even when you know exactly how it will play out (and even when it likely will cost the taxpayers attorney's fees).
There is an obvious comparison between Alabama and Florida. In both states, officials charged with issuing licenses (county clerks in Florida, probate judges in Alabama) took the position that they were not bound by the initial district court order or opinion invalidating the state ban. And in both, the federal court issued a "clarification" that the earlier injunction did not compel any non-parties to issue licenses, but the Constitution did (whatever that means). But then they part ways. In Florida, the county clerks folded their tents following the clarifying order and began issuing licenses across the state,* although I they were not legally compelled to do so by that clarification and did so only as a strategic choice of avoiding being sued. But the Alabama probate judges, and Moore, have not done the same; unlike the Florida clerks, they seem intent on making the plaintiffs take the steps of obtaining those individualized federal injunctions.
* Mostly. Clerks in several counties avoided having to issue licenses to same-sex couples by ceasing issuing licenses at all.
So two questions: 1) Why is Alabama playing out differently. Is it Moore and other officials playing Wallace/Faubus by demanding formal legal processes? 2) Is it wrong of them to demand those processes be followed (and by that I mean not merely less preferable or more expensive, but morally or legally wrong)?
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
The irony of trying to have it both ways
Much of what is happening with same-sex marriage in Alabama right now is a product of a hierarchical and geographically dispersed judiciary. The district courts hear cases first and may decide quickly, but the decision (beyond the parties themselves) has limited precedential value. The courts of appeals and SCOTUS create sweeping binding precedent, but it takes longer to get those decisions.
Had the Eleventh Circuit or SCOTUS ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits same-sex marriage bans, the obligations of state officials would be clearer. It would be certain that any district court would order them to issue the license because the precedent would be binding and that to not issue licenses would subject them to contempt. It also would be certain they would be on the hook for attorney's fees. And they may even be on the hook for damages, because the law would be clearly established. But we are still early in the process in Alabama, so we only have a persuasive-but-not-binding opinion from a district court. And we see what we would expect--it is persuading some actors, not persuading others; when lawsuits start coming, it may persuade some district courts and not persuade others.
In the short term, of course, this may give us Swiss cheese--one report this morning said 16 out of 67 counties are issuing licenses. Uniformity within the state comes with that binding precedent from the reviewing court. But it takes time.
There is a way to avoid Swiss cheese, of course: Have the district court decision and order stayed pending appeal. Then everyone will be able to marry at the same time--once the reviewing court provides binding precedent that same-sex marriage bans are invalid, after which everyone is bound. Of course, no one on the pro-marriage equality side wants to wait. I would guess everyone would strongly prefer marriages in 16 counties to marriages in none.
But that is the choice. You can have marriages begin without binding precedent, but not every official or court will go along with the precedent, so not everyone will gain the benefit of it. Or you can get uniformity from the eventual binding precedent so that everyone will be bound and everyone will benefit, but you have to wait. You cannot get both. And while frustrating, it is wrong to attribute this procedural reality to malfeasance by state officials.
And the media does not help
Most counties in Alabama were not issuing licenses as of yesterday, not improperly so as a matter of process. But you would not know it from the media, with headlines such as Most Alabama Counties Defy Feds by Blocking Gay Marriage (ABC News, complete with video of George Wallace in the doorway) and Judicial Defiance in Alabama: Same-sex marriage begins, but most counties refuse (Wash. Post); The Supreme Court Refused to Stop Gay Marriage in Alabama, But the State's Governor and Chief Justice Are Refusing to Listen (TNR); and Alabama's Roy Moore Defies Federal Order, Refuses to Allow Gay Marriage (Slate's Mark Joseph Stern, who can't help himself, calling it a "stunning display of defiance against the judiciary").
Monday, February 09, 2015
Measels--An Update and Some Constitutional Issues
So things are moving fast on the Measles front. Today I’m going to do a quick overview of mandatory vaccination for childhood disease and later this week what it tells us about our efforts to prepare for a bioterrorism event (spoiler, nothing good).
The measles outbreak has spread now to 17 states and the District of Columbia. And things are worse than they seem. The current “outbreak” (the number of cases that can be traced back to the original Disneyland exposure) signals how many people in the U.S. lack immunity not just to measles, but most likely to the other two deadly diseases which the MMR vaccine protects against—Mumps and Rubella (German Measles). For an overview of the damage done by Andrew Wakefield’s now discredited article see here. See how Megyn Kelly explains it here. Last year I gathered some resources specific to young adults, and they are here.
Rubella poses a serious risk to developing fetuses. According to the CDC A pregnant woman has “at least a 20% chance of damage to the fetus if….infected early in pregnancy.” This damage is called CRS-congenital rubella syndrome. Warning-you may want to take my word that this potential damage is serious rather than read this very descriptive CDC report . Mumps is also quite serious. Again a warning, it may be enough to know that the virus causes swelling in various body parts and can be a contributing factor to infertility or low fertility in a small but real percentage of men who become infected.
Moreover, it seems unlikely that MMR is the only vaccine these children lack. They are also at risk for polio, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, chickenpox, hepatitis B(and no, it’s not just a sexually transmitted disease),meningococcal disease , and something really unpleasant for which there is now a vaccine—rotavirus. Here’s the list.
The public focus has turned very quickly to law and ending vaccination exemptions, see here and here, —so these are some resources if this comes up. Top legal experts like Professor Lawrence O. Gostin are making clear, there is no Constitutional requirement to exempt anyone from mandatory vaccination in the face of a credible threat to the public’s health. The Supreme Court in held Jacobson v. Massachusetts that the individual states have full authority to pass mandatory vaccination laws and that they are not obligated to give exemptions for reasons of philosophy or preference. For more background on the Constitutional issues see Prof. Parmet here, here, and here and Professor Edward P. Richards. The situation is a closer call when it comes to religion, but not much. As Justice Ginsberg points out in her dissenting opinion in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, “Religious objections to immunization programs are not hypothetical.” 134 S.Ct. 2751, 2805, n. 31 (2014). And in terms of an adult’s right to claim a religious exemption from medical care for a minor, the law is if anything clearer. Even when making a “martyr” of oneself doesn’t pose a threat to others, a state still has the power to intervene when the religious belief is claimed on behalf of a minor. Here’s a helpful overview by the Congressional Research Service about vaccination laws in the US and here's one that looks at laws overseas.You may be interested to know that the CDC is tracing several outbreaks at the moment including Listeria monocytogenes from caramel apples and sprouts
No contempt for you
Motion for Contempt denied--as expected and as appropriate. Judge Granade emphasized that Judge Davis is not a party. And she pointed out that her clarification order "noted that actions against Judge Davis or others who fail to follow the Constitution could be initiated by persons who are harmed by their failure to follow the law." In other words, plaintiffs' lawyers, pay attention to what the judge tells you.
Same-sex marriage comes to Alabama
Read the whole thing for reports and photos of same-sex marriages in Alabama (my favorite is the two African-American women posing with the white male judge who married them in Birmingham--maybe we have come some ways.. Roy Moore's Sunday gambit had mixed results; marriages are taking place throughout the state, although not in particular counties. Lawyers are preparing to file an action in federal court against the probate judge in Mobile asking for an injunction--exactly how this should play out.
[Update: Or not. The lawyers for a couple actually filed a Motion for Contempt and Immediate Relief against Judge Don Davis, probate judge in Mobile. But since Davis is not a party to the original action or subject to the original injunction, he cannot be held in contempt by this judge. All they had to do was file a new action, which would have been assigned to Judge Granade for a new preliminary injunction. This is insane.]
[One More: Marty Lederman reminds me that Judge Davis was originally a party to the case, but was dismissed with prejudice for reasons I cannot fathom, beyond, again, no one knows what they're doing here. But it is even less possible to hold in contempt a person who was explicitly dismissed from the case.]
SCOTUS this morning denied a stay in Searcy, from which Justices Thomas and Scalia dissented. In response, AG Luther Strange clarified that, while he is barred from enforcing Alabama's ban, he has no power to issue license, and that probate judges should consult their attorneys and associations.
Josh Blackman has some thoughts on Thomas's dissent. I may have more to say later.
Ever looking to escalate, Alabama's Chief Justice Roy Moore has issued an Administrative Order stating:
Effective immediately, no Probate Judge of the State of Alabama nor any agent or employee of any Alabama Probate Judge shall issue or recognize a marriage license that is inconsistent with [Alabama's constitutional and statutory prohibitions on same-sex marriage].
Moore seems to be relying on the fact that no probate judge is subject to Judge Granade's order. So we probably need to read this as implicitly applying "as of Sunday, February 8," but no longer effective when probate judges start getting enjoined by federal district courts on Monday morning.
But Moore's move now has me thinking that commenters to my earlier posts had it right--Moore is the statewide officer who should be named as defendant, with an injunction ordering him to order the state's probate judges to issue licenses. Moore clearly has set himself up as the official with the power to control the enforcement of this particular state law by controlling what state probate judges do, much as California's AG could control county clerks and order them all to issue licenses. Moore concedes he is acting in an administrative capacity. And since this is not a decision arising from actual litigation, neither Younger nor Rooker-Feldman should come into play.
Sunday, February 08, 2015
More from Alabama
This article lays out the competing sides of the dispute pretty well. And it shows how complicated this may be getting and how confused many people are by this area of the law.
First, the article talks about Alabama probate judges being jailed for contempt. This would be utterly impossible--Judge Granade cannot hold in contempt anyone who was not party to the federal action, which is only the state AG. But the story then clarifies that contempt would be for violating a future order against a probate judge sued on Monday for refusing to issue a license, not for violating Judge Granade's original order. Which is right, although unlikely--at least Judge Bowden has stated that he will comply with any injunction that may issue should he be sued.
Second, someone mentions the possibility of "sanctions" against the judges, including attorney's fees. This is one of the things Judge Granade mentioned in her "clarification" order, which block-quotes from Judge Hinkle's similar clarifying order in the Florida case
Calling this a "sanction" is wrong, in that it suggests wrongdoing by the non-issuing judge for which he would be punished. Instead, fees would be a routine part of the injunction action. Under § 1988(b), a prevailing party can recover attorney's fees; this would cover a same-sex couple that sues and obtains an injunction ordering the judge to issue the license because the state SSM ban violates the Fourteenth Amendment.
But the attorney's fee question gets another layer because Alabama has vested the licensing power in judicial officers. Section 1988(b) has an exception--"in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity such officer shall not be held liable for any costs, including attorney’s fees, unless such action was clearly in excess of such officer’s jurisdiction." This was added in 1996, along with an amendment to § 1983 which limits the availability of injunctions against a "judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity." The amendments together were intended to limit the effect of the Court's 1984 decision in Pulliam v. Allen, which held that absolute judicial immunity does not extend to injunctions or attorney's fees. The effect is to grant judges absolute immunity from attorney's fees to the same extent they enjoy absoulute immunity from damages--whenever they acted in a judicial capacity or performe a judicial function and did not act in the complete absence of jurisdiction.
It seems pretty clear that issuing a marriage license lacks the hallmarks of a judicial function (adversary proceedings, appellate review, formal processes) and lacks the exercise of the learned judgment that characterizes judicial decisionmaking and justifies judicial immunity. This is a purely ministerial function, such that a judge acts in an executive capacity in performing it. As such, a probate judge refusing to issue a license would not enjoy judicial immunity from an action for damages,* would not fall within the exception to § 1983 regarding injunctions against judges, and would not fall within the exception to § 1988(b) regarding attorney's fees against judges.
* A judge performing an executive function still can claim qualified immunity. And since it is not clearly established in Alabama that a ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, any Alabama probate judge sued next week almost certainly would enjoy qualified immunity.
Attorney's fees play an interesting and unexpected function in a situation like this--they act as a deterrent to recalcitrant state officials. While formally not bound by the district court decision invalidating the SSM, the threat of attorney's fees puts these officials to a choice: 1) Force plaintiffs to go through the additional step of another lawsuit to obtain an (almost-certain-to-issue) injunction at the risk of having to pay fees or 2) Go along with the district court, even if not legally obligated to do so, to avoid fees. Neither option is right or wrong, but § 1988(b) puts a thumb on the scales in favor of the latter.
Saturday, February 07, 2015
Ben Bowden, a probate judge in Covington County, AL, announced on Friday that, on his reading of the law, he will not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on Monday, when the stay of a district court injunction expires. Bowden concluded that he the district court decision and injunction invalidating the state's marriage-equality ban is not binding on him, thus he will continue to follow the state-law ban until an appropriate court directs him otherwise.
So the issue now is queued up. A couple wanting a license in Covington County can now sue Judge Bowden for an injunction compelling him to issue the license; the issue is ripe, given Bowden's announcement, and the couple will have standing. Covington County is located in the Southern District, so the case likely will be assigned to Judge Granade (most districts have a rule sending "related cases," often broadly defined, to the same judge); she will quickly issue an order reaffirming her earlier opinion that the marriage-equality ban is unconstitutional, ordering Bowden to issue the license, and refusing to stay the order. And Bowden recognized that he will be sued and insisted that he would "fully comply" with an order in a case to which he is a party.
Obviously, this is not the most efficient way of doing things. But the point is that couples will be able to get their licenses, probably on Monday, in fairly short order.
Thursday, February 05, 2015
Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm and the Sequencing of Constitutional Claims
Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm is a separation-of-powers decision concerning Congress’s (lack of) power to mandate the reopening of final judgments in federal courts. Specifically, the Court in Plaut held that Congress had violated constitutional separation-of-powers requirements by requiring U.S. district courts to reinstate certain federal securities-fraud cases that they had previously dismissed as time-barred. The separation-of-powers issue is interesting in its own right, but I’ve lately found myself wondering about a separate aspect of the opinion—namely, the Court’s justification for its decision not to address an alternative argument concerning the defendants’ due process rights under the Fifth Amendment.
That the Court in Plaut prioritized resolution of one constitutional issue over another is hardly remarkable: Litigants in Supreme Court cases routinely assert alternative constitutional grounds for relief, and the Court very often chooses to focus on one such ground while leaving the resolution of the other constitutional claims for another day. But Plaut is unusual in that the Court offered some explanation as to why it had chosen to sequence one constitutional claim (i.e., the separation of powers claim) ahead of another (i.e., the due process claim). Specifically, as Justice Scalia observed for the Plaut majority, resolution of the separation-of-powers claim would affect only the powers of the federal government, whereas resolution of the due process claim “might dictate a similar result in a challenge to state legislation under the Fourteenth Amendment.” The separation-of-powers claim therefore presented the “narrower ground for adjudication of the constitutional questions in this case,” and that was enough to justify the Court’s decision to “consider it first.”
Let’s call this the “Plaut presumption”: It’s a sort of variation/extension on the constitutional avoidance principles set forth in TVA v. Ashwander—applicable not to cases in which the Court considers both constitutional and nonconstitutional grounds for a holding, but rather to cases in which all of the potential grounds are constitutionally-based. The Plaut presumption, in other words, calls for an intra-constitutional evaluation of narrowness, so as to yield a sequencing of constitutional adjudication that proceeds from most to least narrow.
Now, without looking into it the matter in much depth, I would hazard to guess that the Court has not fully committed itself to the Plaut presumption: In other words, I suspect we could identify several cases (both pre- and post-Plaut) in which the Court has arguably deviated from the course of confronting alternative constitutional arguments in a descending order of narrowness. Still, the Plaut presumption remains at least theoretically interesting in light of its suggestion that one constitutional “ground for adjudication” can qualify as “narrower” than another, which in turn raises the question of how to evaluate the comparative narrowness/breadth of two or more constitutional claims. If, in other words, we were fully committed to the Plaut presumption, what criteria of narrowness should we look to in sequencing the resolution of multiple constitutional questions? Here are a few possibilities:
- Geographic Scope: This is the criterion relied on by the majority in Plaut. The separation-of-powers question counted as narrower than the due process question because the former carried implications for the federal government whereas the latter carried implications for both the federal government and state governments. This criterion is sensible enough on its own terms: all else equal, a holding that binds 51 jurisdictions would seem to be broader than a holding that binds only one such jurisdiction. Still, the “geographic scope” criterion gets us only so far: Lots of cases, for instance, will involve claims that government action violates multiple constitutional rights—rights that apply more or less equally against the federal and state governments. Lots of other cases will involve multiple alternative claims concerning Article I and constitutional structure—claims that have little, if anything, to do with the states. In those sorts of cases, then, geographic scope alone cannot be definitive. What is more, as we will soon see, focusing exclusively on geographic criteria might obscure other important features bearing on the overall narrowness/breadth of a given constitutional claim.
- Political Reversibility: One of the reasons why Ashwander favors the resolution of nonconstitutional over constitutional claims is that the former, unlike the latter, are reversible through political means. At first glance, that logic would seem inapplicable to cases involving only constitutional claims, but on further investigation some possibly useful distinctions might emerge. For example, suppose that plaintiffs have challenged a state law on the ground that it violates dormant Commerce Clause doctrine and also Privileges and Immunities Clause doctrine. Plaut’s agenda-setting logic would likely favor prioritization of the dormant Commerce Clause claim (on the theory that Congress can always override a dormant Commerce Clause decision—but not a P&I decision—with which it disagrees). And to the extent there exist other politically reversible rules of “constitutional common law,” Plaut would favor resolving claims arising under those rules before claims arising under the operative constitutional propositions themselves. (And, of course, if ever a party argued that a law violated, inter alia, the unamendable constitutional guarantee of equal state representation in the Senate, then that claim should be pushed to the very, very back of the line!)
- Means of Compliance: Related to, but ultimately distinct from, the question of political irreversibility is the relative degree of flexibility political actors would have in complying with a given constitutional holding. To take an abstract example, striking down a government program on procedural due process grounds might often afford the government a greater degree of remedial leeway than would striking down the same program on substantive due process grounds: the procedural due process holding would simply limit the means by which the government could deprive an individual of life, liberty, or property, whereas the substantive due process holding would categorically foreclose the government from achieving the deprivation, period. Similarly, perhaps, the Constitution’s equality-related guarantees will provide a “narrower” basis for decision than the Constitution’s substantive-guarantees, in the sense that the former might sometimes permit the government to choose between subjecting either everyone or no one to a form of preferential treatment, whereas the latter will always require the government to pursue the former course. And, we could imagine other more context-specific bases for concluding that different theories of constitutional harm might afford government actors more or less regulatory freedom in the choice of how to alleviate that harm.
- Precedential Impact: Another axis along which to evaluate the relative narrowness of alternative constitutional grounds for relief would relate to the precedential status quo. Suppose that one constitutional claim rests on a rule of constitutional law that is well established and applies clearly to the facts of a case; suppose that an alternative constitutional claim rests on a murkier constitutional standard whose application to the facts is anything but clear. Under these circumstances, we might understand the Plaut presumption to favor the “easy” constitutional claim over the “difficult” constitutional claim, on the theory that resolving the easy claim will merely confirm a point we already understood the applicable precedents to establish, whereas resolving the difficult claim will be more likely to result in a “new” rule of constitutional law that we had not previously encountered. And it would apply even more forcefully in cases presenting a theory of constitutional relief that depend on a reconsideration of previous decisions. (Why go to the trouble of confronting difficult questions about stare decisis, the argument would go, when you could reach the same result without overruling any prior precedents at all.)
Anyway, those are some preliminary thoughts as to how someone fully committed to the Plaut presumption might go about applying it in future cases. Interesting questions remain, however, as to (a) whether it's worth thinking about narrowness at all in Plaut-like cases; (b) if so, whether additional criteria of narrowness should factor into the inquiry (and/or whether any of my proposed criteria should be excluded); and (c) what to do when one criterion of narrowness appears to conflict with another. Suppose, for instance, that litigants have challenged a federal law on both structural and rights-based grounds, and suppose further that the rights-based argument already has some support for it under existing law whereas the structural argument presents a genuine question of first impression. The “geographic-scope” criterion would favor resolution of the structural argument prior to the rights-based argument, whereas the “precedential-impact” criterion would favor the opposite approach. How, under the Plaut presumption, should we sequence the issues?
A final thought involves how these criteria might influence our thinking about the sequencing rule of Ashwander itself. Ashwander, as I’ve noted above, embraces the “political reversibility” criterion of narrowness. But we can imagine constitutional/nonconstitutional cases in which that criterion might run up against others that point in the other direction. Suppose, for instance, that challengers to a law had asserted a fairly straightforward constitutional ground for relief and a much more complicated/uncertain statutory ground for relief? Or what about the choice between a structural constitutional claim that would impact only the federal government, and a rights-based nonconstitutional claim that would impact both the feds and the states? Ashwander would say: “address the nonconstitutional claim first.” But if variables like precedential impact and geographic scope are also relevant to our evaluation of the claims’ respective narrowness, then even from a pro-minimalist, pro-avoidance standpoint, we might at least sometimes want to reach the constitutional issue before confronting its nonconstitutional counterpart.