Tuesday, October 13, 2015
The first episode of C-SPAN's Landmark Cases covered Marbury. It was an interesting program, mostly a discussion between Akhil Amar and attorney Cliff Sloan, who has written a book on the case. The discussion tells the full historical and political context of the case.
I was struck by a few things. And as to all, I recognize that this program is not pitched at lawyers and law students. But if the purpose is to elevate the conversation, perhaps some better editing was in order.
First, in interview excerpts, both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Ginsburg entirely conflate judicial review and judicial supremacy, stating that Marbury recognized that the Court can review constitutionality and its word on that is final. The second does not follow from the first, of course. Amar pushed back; while insisting that he is not a Kim Davis supporter,* he pointed to Andrew Jackson vetoing the bank and Jefferson pardoning those convicted under the Alien and Sedition Acts. How do those who espouse judicial supremacy explain those actions? It seems to me there are only two possibilities: 1) Both presidents acted unconstitutionally (because inconsistent with the Court's interpretation), but in a way not subject to judicial review or 2) Both presidents acted constitutionally, in which case the Court does not have the final say on constitutional meaning. I presume both Roberts and Ginsburg know this and were using shorthand for a lay audience.
* As I have argued, Davis only begins as a story about shared constitutional interpretation, but ends as being about the finality and exclusivity of judgments.
Second, there is an interview excerpt with Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, who says the problem is that there is often too much judicial review. He then complains about two situations: 1) the Court using judicial review to make up the Constitution where there is nothing to be found and 2) the Court refusing to recognize in the Constitution what "most people" know is there. For those of you scoring at home, # 1 is Roe, # 2 is NFIB. But the good or bad of judicial review should not be about decisions you happen to think are wrong. Again, I know I should not expect more from a member of Congress.
Third, even crazy people listen and try to call into C-SPAN. One of the callers started rambling about two religions that want to impose their law on everyone else: "the Jewish law and the Sharia law." To the caller's credit, when the host asked what this had to do with Marbury, the caller said "nothing."
Thursday, October 08, 2015
It's going to get pricey
Michigan has agreed to pay $1.9 million in attorneys fees to the plaintiffs who successfully challenged the state's same-sex marriage ban. That is in the same ballpark as Wisconsin paying $ 1.055 million in fees (that case only went to the court of appeals, not to SCOTUS).
Kim Davis must know that her stunt is going to get very expensive very quickly.
Saturday, October 03, 2015
"Landmark Cases" on C-SPAN
C-SPAN has produced (in conjunction with the National Constitution Center) a new weekly series called Landmark Cases. (H/T: Faculty Lounge). The series premieres tomorrow evening with Marbury and concludes on December 21 with Roe. In between, the series hits on Dred Scot, Slaughterhouse, Lochner, Schenck, Korematsu, Youngstown Steel, Brown, Mapp, Baker v. Carr, and Miranda.
Apparently there have been no landmark cases since 1973. And the choice of Schenck over Abrams (where someone at least stood-up for the First Amendment claimant) or New York Times (where the First Amendment claimant prevailed) is an interesting one.
Thursday, October 01, 2015
U.S. v. Klein returns to SCOTUS
I spent the better part of two years a few years ago writing about United States v. Klein, including a number of posts here. The Court this morning granted cert. in Bank Markazi v. Peterson on whether Klein's separation-of-powers principle is violated by a statutory provision blocking certain Iranian-controlled assets for use in satisfying U.S. terrorism-related judgments against Iran.
Section 8772 of Title 22 provides that certain Iranian-controlled assets are subject to execution or attachment to satisfy money judgments against Iran "for personal injury or death caused by an act of torture, extrajudicial killing, aircraft sabotage, or hostage-taking, or the provision of material support or resources." The assets described are specifically identified as the ones targeted in Peterson (which is mentioned by name) and which already had been restrained by the court in that case prior to enactment of the law. The statute requires that the court hold a hearing and determine whether Iran owns the assets, in whole or in part.
Bank Markazi argued below that the law violates the principle of Klein by improperly compelling the court to reach a preordained result--namely that Iran owns these assets. It emphasized that § (b) refers to the Peterson litigation by name and that the result of any judicial hearing is preordained, since Iran's interests in the assets was known and established before § 8772 was enacted. Nevertheless, the Second Circuit rejected the Klein argument, insisting that § 8772 changed applicable law for a pending case, but still required an independent judicial determination and application. Nor was it problematic that the law was drafted for a specific, identified litigation, something the Court had previously found did not equate with compelling an outcome. Section 8772 did not dictate an outcome; it only changed the law in a way likely to produce, through judicial application of the amended law, Congress' preferred outcome. But the likelihood of an outcome does not signal congressional dictation of an outcome; "[i]ndeed, it would be unusual for there to be more than one likely outcome when Congress changes the law for a pending case with a developed factual record."
Interestingly, the Second Circuit opinion contains some language that might have teed the case up for cert. In an act of understatement, the court acknowledged that the line between a valid change in law and an invalid legislative adjudication "is often difficult to draw." In fact, "there may be little functional difference between § 8772 and a hypothetical statute directing the courts to find that the assets at issue in this case are subject to attachment under existing law, which might raise more concerns." The court made clear that § 8772 did not cross the constitutional line because of the Court's guidance in Robertson.
So perhaps the Court is looking for a chance to reconsider Robertson and that line. Indeed, the ease with which courts can characterize just about any enactment as a change of law rather than a congressional compulsion is part of why Klein's "no dictating outcomes" principle carries so little force. This case might give the Court a chance to breathe some life into Klein.
Thursday, September 24, 2015
Justice and fairness v. procedure
Judge Bunning declined to stay his order extending the injunction against Kim Davis to all eligible couples. (H/T: Marty Lederman). Bunning explained:
Had the Court declined to clarify that its ruling applied to all eligible couples seeking a marriage license in Rowan County, it would have effectively granted Plaintiffs’ request for injunctive relief and left other eligible couples at the mercy of Davis’ “no marriage licenses” policy, which the Court found to be in violation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015). Such an approach would not only create piecemeal litigation, it would be inconsistent with basic principles of justice and fairness. Thus, when the need arose, the Court clarified that its ruling applied with equal force to all marriage license applicants in Rowan County, regardless of their involvement in this litigation. (emphasis added).
Perhaps he is right about justice and fairness. But he is flat wrong on the procedure. What Bunning describes as "piecemeal litigation" is simply "litigation," which adjudicates and resolves the obligations of parties, not the entire world. The way to avoid the feared piecemeal litigation is to certify the class, as the plaintiffs requested, a move Bunning continues to resist. Otherwise, new couples are free to file new suits or seek to join or intervene in the pending action. Short of that, Bunning lacks the power to broaden the injunction in this way. And this remains the one issue on which Davis might actually prevail.
Settlement in Tolan v. Cotton
Last year, SCOTUS summarily reversed a grant of summary judgment against a plaintiff in a § 1983 action, concluding that the district court had impermissibly resolved disputed facts in defining the factual context for purposes of qualified immunity. I wrote about the case, arguing that, through some procedural confusion, it might indicate a new scrutiny of this sort of sub silentio fact-finding on qualified immunity.
SCOTUS remanded the case to the Fifth Circuit to reconsider whether other, undisputed facts supported qualified immunity; the Fifth Circuit sent it back to the district court. In September, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the city and sent the individual claim to trial, commenting that SCOTUS would not "be satisfied if we didn’t take this case to trial." After one day of trial, the case settled for $ 110,000, a typical outcome for cases that do not go away on summary judgment and a typical settlement amount for a claim involving serious-but-not-life-threatening injuries. (H/T: Jonah Gelbach of Penn).
An interesting side note: Tolan sought to have District Judge Melinda Harmon recuse over comments she made at the pretrial hearing on the eve of trial. The basis for the motion was a newspaper article reporting on the conference; the article quoted Harmon as saying she was tempted to grant summary judgment on the individual claim, but read SCOTUS as hinting that the case should go to trial. The article also quoted her as saying she was "confident" and "had faith" in her opinion and thought she was right the first time.
The court rightly denied the motion. She stated that some of the statements were taken out of context and referred to the claim against the city, not the individual officer. Other statements involved legalities and interpretations of law, with no discussion of what material facts might be undisputed or not. Moreover, there is nothing improper with the judge stating that she continues to believe she was right about her initial summary judgment decision on the individual claim (the one SCOTUS reversed). My experience is that district judges always continue to believe they were right even after being reversed. But that does not impair their ability to apply and follow that decision, much less indicate favoritism or antagonism towards the party against whom they originally ruled. Otherwise, a case should be assigned to a new district judge whenever there is a reverse-and-remand, which would create all sorts of unworkable procedural problems in complex cases.
Sunday, September 20, 2015
Deparmentalism, popular constitutionalism, and constitutional politics
Joey Fishkin writes at Balkinization about the race among GOP presidential candidates to undo birthright citizenship. Fishkin identifies several approaches--an "old school" departmentalism espoused by Mike Huckabee, in which the President can ignore Supreme Court precedent, a moderate approached advocated by Donald Trump (and echoed by Rand Paul and Ted Cruz) that acknowledges the Court's "ultimate authority" in constitutional interpretation, and pure judicial supremacy suggested by Carly Fiorina, under which only a constitutional amendment can challenge Supreme Court precedent.
Fioria to one side, I am not sure the distinction between Trump et al and Huckabee is as sharp as Fishkin suggests. In fact, either approach envisions both the power of the President and Congress to disagree with and disregard SCOTUS precedent and the interpretive role for SCOTUS.
President Trump must initiate birthright citizenship as a live constitutional issue--for example, signing a law providing that children of undocumented immigrants are not citizens and are subject to removal or commencing removal proceedings against U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants. Either move would be in so-called "defiance" or "disobedience" to (admittedly old) precedent on the meaning of "subject to the jurisdiction" in § 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment, based on President Trump's independent assessment (supported by constitutional "experts") of the meaning of § 1. That interpretive independence is a key feature of departmentalism, which holds that the President does not violate his "Take Care" obligations or his constitutional oath by acting contrary to even SCOTUS precedent. Either move also triggers a role for the Court, as the judiciary almost certainly will be called on to consider the issues, whether in reviewing a removal decision or in evaluating the constitutional validity of the statute in a pre-enforcement challenge, and render a judgment in a specific challenge, based on the court's own constitutional analysis.
The difference among the candidates may be what happens next. Under a middle-ground departmentalism, the President must abide by and enforce the judgment in those specific cases. But he can continue to act in disagreement with the opinion underlying that judgment (as by, for example, initiating new removal proceedings against new individuals), until a new judgment bars him from doing so as to particular individuals. Eventually, the repeated losing will become politically and financially expensive and he will stop the cycle. This does seem a middle ground between where Fishkin places Huckabee (who seems to believe obeying an individual judgment constitutes "judicial tyranny") and Trump (whom Fishkin seems to presume would fall in line with SCOTUS precedent after the first decision).
For present purposes, I would be content to hear Trump argue, in essence: "My constitutional vision, supported by constitutional experts, is that § 1 does not guarantee birthright citizenship to the children of non-citizens, I am unconvinced by the Supreme Court's 120-year-old decision to the contrary, and, as President, I will act on that constitutional vision in the following ways. I do not need a constitutional amendment in the first instance."
But Fishkin offers a way in which departmentalism and popular constitutionalism overlap. The judiciary can be influenced and ultimately swayed by "experts" whose advocacy (in and out of court) make heretofore unexpected constitutional positions seem reasonable and proper to the public and thus to the court. Those experts similarly can influence the popular branches in their departmental constitutional analysis and their subsequent actions (described above) to put the issues in play and in front of the courts. In other words, I describe above a process of the executive repeatedly losing. Fishkin suggests that departmentalism, girded by popular constitutionalism, may lead to an ultimate constitutional victory in the courts.
Friday, September 18, 2015
Sixth Circuit denies Kim Davis another stay
The Sixth Circuit on Thursday denied Kim Davis a stay pending appeal of the order extending the original injunction to bar her from denying licenses to any eligible couples (the extended injunction was issued the same day Judge Bunning jailed Davis for contempt). (H/T: Religion Clause Blog and Josh Blackman) Davis never asked the district court for a stay pending appeal, as required by Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 8(a)(1)(A), and the court of appeals refused to accept "extraordinary doggedness of the district court to expand the Injunction, without jurisdiction or fair notice and opportunity to be hearing" as basis for finding that it would be "impracticable" to move in the district court, as required by FRAP 8(a)(2)(A)(i).
The latter conclusion is fair, I suppose, since the argument basically accuses the district court of having it in for Davis. Nevertheless, there is something strange about asking a district court to stay an injunction that he just entered by finding that the defendant has a substantial likelihood of success on appeal--in other words, there is a substantial likelihood that the district court was wrong. We do not require trial courts to make a similar confession of likely error in any other context. It also seems like a waste here--Davis will now ask Bunning for a stay, he will deny it, and the issue will be back with the court of appeals in a week or two.
It is notable that the extension of the injunction was not, as plaintiffs requested and many (including me) assumed, in anticipation of class certification. Instead, the district court extended the injunction in recognition of two other individual actions challenging Davis' no-marriage policy. (H/T: Marty Lederman for the analysis). I am not sure that is a valid basis for extending the injunction (where as expanding in anticipation of class status would be), so Davis may actually have one small argument that is not doomed to total failure.
Monday, September 14, 2015
Texas, Abortion, and the Supreme Court – Part II
As I noted in an earlier post, several Texas abortion providers have filed a petition for certiorari in Whole Women’s Health v. Cole, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to decide on the constitutionality of a Texas state law requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a local hospital and requiring all abortion clinics to qualify as ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs), including requirements that are more demanding than those that apply to other, similar facilities that do not provide abortions. Here is my brief analysis of the legal issues in that case. (Note that this analysis is only of the “undue-burden” issues; there is also a res judicata issue in that case, which I will not analyze.)
The plaintiffs in Whole Women's Health claim that the admitting-privileges and ASC requirements are unconstitutional because, under the standard identified in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, they impose an undue burden on the right to abortion. There are basically two ways in which these requirements can be seen to impose an undue burden.
First, they will close three quarters of the abortion clinics in Texas, reducing the number from 40 to 10. The law would therefore drastically reduce abortion access for women in Texas, essentially making the procedure completely unavailable for a large swath of Texas residents. The problem would be particularly acute in the Rio Grande Valley, which is a largely impoverished area that would be left without any abortion provider at all (indeed, a recent study listed two metropolitan areas in the Rio Grande Valley as the two poorest cities in the country).
Although the undue burden standard is notoriously amorphous, there seems to be good argument that a requirement that closes so many clinics and reduces access so dramatically-- in practical terms eliminating the right to seek an abortion for a large number of women -- would have to constitute an undue burden. In other words, if anything is an undue burden, this is.
At the same time, this theory raises the question of just how many clinic closings is too many. There is no easy answer to that question. If a state enacted a law that would have the effect of closing every clinic in the state, it would seem to constitute a clear undue burden for women in that state. But how close to that line can a state come without violating the undue burden standard? Moreover, what if the clinics were being closed because they were all being operated by incompetent physicians, or because they were unsanitary? (That is emphatically not the case here, but I pose that hypothetical because it raises the question of whether undue burden can be judged based on the impact on access alone.)
That’s the first argument. The second argument is related. It says that the Texas law imposes an undue burden because it dramatically reduces abortion access without having a similarly significant health benefit to women in Texas. The state justifies the ASC and admitting privileges requirements as measures that protect health and safety. Yet, there is no evidence whatsoever that these requirements actually do advance any health or safety interest. So, the plaintiffs argue, the burden on abortion is “undue” because it has little positive impact in advancing the state’s purported interest while imposing a heavy burden on abortion access. In other words, in determining whether a burden is “undue,” courts should weigh the effect on abortion access against the extent to which the restriction actually advances a legitimate state interest.
The circuits are currently split on whether to engage in this sort of balancing test. As the plaintiffs’ cert petition notes, the Seventh and Ninth Circuits hold that this sort of balancing is required by the undue burden test, whereas the Fifth and perhaps Sixth Circuits have rejected it.
Again, it seems the plaintiffs have a very strong argument here. The balancing-test model makes sense of the hypothetical I presented above, in which the state’s clinics were being closed due to real, rather than unsubstantiated, health and safety concerns. In addition, if the undue-burden test doesn’t take the legitimacy of the state’s interest or the mean-end fit into account, then it starts to look a lot like a rational-basis standard of review, according to which any asserted state interest in health and safety, no matter how pretextual, is permitted to justify closing of clinics, as long as it doesn’t close all, or virtually all of the clinics.
So, that’s the big-picture overview of the legal claims in the case. In my third and final post on this case, I’ll do a brief evaluation of the likelihood that the Court will take the case and how it might decide it.
Tuesday, September 08, 2015
Kim Davis released from custody
Kim Davis has been released from custody and had the contempt sanction lifted, based on the plaintiffs' report that they had received marriage licenses and that deputy clerks were issuing licenses to "all legally eligible couples." The court furthered barred Davis from interfer[ing] in any way, directly or indirectly, with the efforts of her deputy clerks to issue marriage licenses to all legally eligible couples." (H/T: Marty Lederman).
As written, however, the new order brings us back to the recurring problem we have seen with most district court injunctions: This has not been certified as a class action, so the injunction was satisfied when the named plaintiffs received their licenses. Further, Davis cannot properly be held in contempt for interfering with the issuance of licenses to other couples; those licenses are not formally happening on the strength of the court's order, so Davis would not formally be defying the court's order. Of course, if she attempts to push that point, the plaintiffs will simply ask Judge Bunning to certify the class, thereby expanding the injunction to that scope. The wiser move is for Davis to stand aside and let her deputies voluntarily comply.
Monday, September 07, 2015
What if it doesn't pass and other questions about Lessig 2016
Larry Lessig successfully crowd-funded his $ 1 million and is running for President as a single-issue "referendum candidate"--he will serve as President only until passage of the Citizen Equality Act of 2017, after which he will resign and have his Vice President (preferably a liberal such as Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders) become President.
I generally think this is silly. And I say this while supporting pretty much all of the substantive provisions of the Act and as someone who might support a Lessig-type as a presidential candidate (if I thought he could win a general election, which I don't). But a few questions--none of them new or original, but I throw them out here:
1) What if the law does not pass in his first term? Would he seek reelection in 2020?
2) What does it mean for the law to "pass"? Must every piece pass? If not, how many pieces? Must it pass in the current form or are amendments permissible? If not, how watered-down can a version be to still constitute "passing" so as to trigger his resignation?
3) Does he resign after the legislation is signed? Or does he wait around for completion of judicial review? Nothing in the Act seems constitutionally questionable. Of course, in 2009, we all would have said that the health-insurance market affects interstate commerce. And what happens if some (or all) pieces are declared invalid.
4) If he fails to resign as promised, is that an impeachable-and-removable offense?
5) Accepting that legislation takes months even in a functioning Congress (which we surely do not have), how will Lessig handle all the other presidential responsibilities or who will he delegate them to? Will the VP be handling most of these other presidential duties? How will he fill judicial and executive vacancies? Is it fair to question whether he cares about these "mundane" aspects of the presidency and to be concerned that he doesn't?
6) Is it fair game during the election and "debates" to prod Lessig about his views and plans on other issues, accepting that he will have to do other things as President, at least for some period of time? Will he answer these questions and will he answer them well?
7) Are substantial numbers of Democratic voters this detached from political reality? At least part of the frustration with the Obama presidency involved the extraordinary (and unrealistic) expectations when he entered the White House, which he could not possibly meet.* And he began his presidency with substantial majorities in both houses and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. And he still could not get done everything he wanted or tried to do, at least not in the absolute way he wanted.
* No, that was not the only problem. But it has played a role in the perception of his achievements as President.
What makes Lessig (or those who would support him) think he will have any more success, especially since he definitely will not have a House majority and almost uncertainly will not have a Senate majority. Does he (or his voters) believe putting the word "referendum" into his candidacy will actually give him more of a mandate than Obama enjoyed despite having received 70 million votes and 365 Electoral votes? Does he (or his voters) believe Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, or any of the representatives who might lose their seats under a non-gerrymandered proportional representation scheme will care?
8) Aren't all the incentives for Republicans to oppose and drag their feet on this (beyond even the ordinary perverse incentives of divided government)? The longer it drags on, the longer they keep in office someone who really does not want to be President. And the longer it drags on (or the legislation does not pass), the easier to run against Lessig in 2018 and 2020 as a failure who could not achieve his one (and only) presidential goal. "Presidential failure," not "congressional recalcitrance," is always the narrative on which the press, and thus the public, seize.
Sunday, September 06, 2015
Many other takes on the Kim Davis mess (Updated)
Both from Balkinization. Marty Lederman parses Kentucky law and suggests that either the deputy-issued licenses are invalid or there was no need to hold Davis in contempt it was improper to throw Davis in jail (the contempt order was proper). Mark Graber discusses a "class bias in rights" (which Paul already commented on), under which rights that inure, in whole or in part, to the wealthy are more easily implemented than those that inure largely to the less wealthy.
Both are worth a read.
Update: Mike Dorf adds his take, arguing that a district court has broad powers to remedy constitutional violations, even where those remedies might otherwise violate state law. Thus, even if Davis's name/consent ordinarily is necessary, once it became necessary for licenses to issue without her name (in order to ensure compliance with the underlying injunction), those licenses could be made valid. Note that Mike and Marty agree that it was unnecessary to put Davis in jail.
Further Update: More from Sam Bagenstos (Michigan) in The New Republic.
Friday, September 04, 2015
Out George Wallace-ing George Wallace
I was quoted (mostly out of context) in yesterday's New York Times on Kim Davis; I said that Davis was "out George Wallace-ing George Wallace." Wallace's stand in the schoolhouse door, and accompanying speech, remain one of the signature moments of Massive Resistance to Brown and integration. But after making his speech, Wallace stood down when facing the Attorney General, rather than being hauled off by a federalized National Guard or facing a contempt charges (the University had been enjoined to allow Vivian Malone and James Hood to register and Wallace had been enjoined not to interfere with the prior injunction). Wallace made his point and had his moment, but in the end chose not to defy the forcible execution of a court order or to go to jail for a lost cause.
What does it say about society, this issue, current politics, and attitudes towards the judiciary that Davis believed it necessary or proper to take that next step? Is it that she believes she is fighting for conscience rather than secular principles such as federalism? Is her stand less popular locally or nationally than was Wallace's, necessitating the bigger step in order to be heard? Is her stand more popular locally or nationally, such that she garners more support and sympathy by going to jail than Wallace would have? How does the relative popularity of Obergefell as opposed to Brown affect the respective choices each make.
Does Davis go down as this generation's George Wallace? She might, if only because she is proving so rare. According to this WaPo story, citing the group Freedom to Marry, there are only a handful of counties (fewer than 20) in Southern states refusing to issue licenses, at least as a matter of formal office policies.*
* And 13 of those are in Alabama, where probate judges are waiting for the Supreme Court of Alabama to lift the mandamus prohibiting them from issuing licenses (or for SCOTUS to quickly reverse if the Supreme Court of Alabama refuses to lift the mandamus).
Marriage licenses issuing in Rowan County
Here and here. The first couple--William Smith and James Yates--were not parties to the litigation. No word on whether the license was issued in Kim Davis' name or whether it is valid if issued over her command not to. That probably is moot; it would arise only if a marriage officiant refuses to recognize the license or someone somewhere down the line refuses to recognize the marriage as valid, neither of which is likely to occur.
Davis remains in jail, probably until next week. It may come down to whether, if she returns to her job, she intends to order her staff to again stop issuing licenses.
By the way, note the rhetoric floating around here: Davis's husband is quoted as saying "Just because five Supreme Court judges make a ruling, it’s not a law." Now regardless of how silly that statement is on its own, it is notable that blame for his wife being in jail is being placed on the shoulders of the Supreme Court and Obergefell. But the problem is not that Davis ignored the Supreme Court, at least not directly; the problem is that she ignored a district court order directed at her.
Thursday, September 03, 2015
Kim Davis (not Jim or Garfield) jailed for contempt
Judge David Bunning has held Kim Davis in contempt and had her jailed. Bunning apparently pointed to the fact that members of the public are raising money to cover the fines (damn crowd-funding) as evidence that fines alone would not work. This is civil contempt, so she will be released as soon as she agrees to comply with the injunction and issue licenses.
So Davis is now a martyr to the cause, probably what she and her lawyers wanted. It raises a couple of questions: 1) Does this provide grounds for the governor or other state-level official to remove her from office (a question of Kentucky law)? 2) Is Davis now "unable" to issue licenses, opening the door for the county judge to do it, as a commenter to an earlier post suggested? 3) If the county judge begins issuing licenses, does that get Davis out of jail? 4) If the county judge begins issuing licenses, does it moot the case once the plaintiffs get their licenses from the judge (the answer to this one is probably not, because I expect Bunning to go back and certify a class).
For what it is worth, the judicial process is working as it should in all of this. No one said it should be pretty.
Update: Five of the six employees of the office (all but Davis's son) have promised to issue licenses beginning tomorrow, filling out the forms in Davis' name. Bunning also indicated he will lift the contempt order in a few days if employees issue licenses. Davis could have stayed out of jail by agreeing not to interfere with her employees issuing licenses, but she said she could not do so consistent with her conscience. There may be a question of whether those licenses can be valid if issued in defiance of office policy. But I suppose it will be enough that the form is properly completed with Davis' name on it by a duly employed clerk.
Tinkering with the machinery of marriage
Jonathan Adler explains why Kim Davis cannot, and should not be able to, use her personal religious beliefs to refuse to issue licenses to same-sex couples; if her conscience prevents her from doing this, she must resign. Adler points to a 2002 essay by Justice Scalia, in which Scalia explained why, if he believed capital punishment immoral, he must resign from the bench--his personal morality cannot override his judicial obligations. Adler argues that Davis similarly cannot use her personal religious morality to refuse to participate in (paraphrasing Harry Blackmun) the machinery of marriage.
But is there a middle ground between violating religious beliefs and resignation--recusal. Could a Justice Scalia whose religious views prevent him from affirming a death sentence recuse from all such cases? If so, that seems to be what Davis is doing here--recusing herself from the one function that runs afoul of her beliefs, while being ready and willing to perform other functions, even as to same-sex couples.
I am not suggesting Davis should win--she shouldn't. But does the reason have less to do with an absolute prohibition on this type of moral refusal to perform a public function and more with whether the attempted accommodation sufficiently protects the rights of couples seeking marriage licenses?
Tuesday, September 01, 2015
Contempt proceeding in Rowan County
The ACLU today moved to hold Kim Davis in contempt for refusing to allow her office to issue marriage licenses, asking for "financial penalties" seemingly tied to the compensation she continues to receive from the state despite not performing her functions. The motion does not ask for jail time, likely realized that is what she and/or her attorneys want. Judge Bunning has scheduled a hearing for Thursday.
More interestingly, the ACLU also moved the court to clarify the preliminary injunction to "state unambiguously that the preliminary injunction applies not only to future marriage license requests submitted by the four named Plaintiff couples in this action, but also to requests submitted by other individuals who are legally eligible to marry in Kentucky." The motion states that the action was filed as a "putative class action," although the court has never addressed or resolved the class certification issue. So the motion appears to be asking the court, in the guise of clarifying its injunction, to convert it into a class-wide injunction without ever doing the FRCP 23 analysis of whether certification is appropriate. Can the court do this?
Monday, August 31, 2015
Serving two masters in Rowan County, KY? (Further Updates)
I am not a fan of Slate's Mark Joseph Stern, who I think has been both wrong and shrill about the procedure in the marriage-equality litigation. But I wonder if he is onto something with this piece about the connection between Kim Davis, the Rowan (Ky) Clerk of Court who is ignoring a federal injunction (and no, even under the view of departmentalism I have been pushing, you can't do that), and her attorneys from the Liberty Counsel, a religious-conservative advocacy group.
Stern posits that the lawyers are taking her for a ride, using her to push their legal-ideological agenda without regard to her best legal interests, recalling Derrick Bell's famous discussion of attorney-client conflicts in desegregation litigation. One commenter on Stern's post posited that she was offered a ride and willingly accepted. And I have suggested that Davis would be perfectly happy to become a martyr to this cause--although who knows if this is her lawyers or her. Either way, if Stern is right that the lawyers advised Davis to ignore the injunction and be held in contempt, that is troubling, since it raises the possibility that she will be unable to challenge any contempt sanctions later on.
Stern reports that Davis has moved for a stay of the injunction from SCOTUS, in a petition that attempts to minimize the effect of Obergefell and to treat the dissents as binding authority. No way four justices sign-off on that. So now we see what happens when the whole thing is back in the district court.
Update: Justice Kagan (the Sixth Circuit Justice) referred the petition to the full Court, which denied it without comment or published dissent. So now we see whether Davis is really willing to go to jail (or pay hefty fines) over this.
Further Update: Davis continued refusing to issue licenses, this time on video. The irony (which no one is going to catch) is that the couple in the video--David Moore and David Ermold--are not among the eight (four couples) named plaintiffs. So Davis actually is not in contempt in denying them the license.
Thursday, August 27, 2015
The Sixth Circuit has declined to stay the injunction against the County Clerk of Rowan County, Ky; her office is refusing to issue any marriage licenses, citing religious liberty, to avoid having to issue licenses to same-sex couples. The court was emphatic that there was "little or no likelihood" that the clerk would prevail on her appeal. Because the injunction runs against the clerk in her official capacity and thus against the clerk's office, "it cannot be defensibly argued that the holder of the Rowan County Clerk’s office . . . may decline to act in conformity with the United States Constitution as interpreted by a dispositive holding of the United States Supreme Court."*
[*] I would have put this point slightly differently, although the basic idea--the clerk is going to lose--is right.
So we now are set for the clerk to be held in contempt, which, as I said before, is what she and many others in this post-Obergefell crusade probably have wanted all along. Look for her to be featured in a new Ted Cruz video very soon.
Wednesday, August 26, 2015
Do not go gentle into that Nebraska night
Nebraska has asked the Eighth Circuit for rehearing en banc on whether the challenge to its same-sex marriage ban is moot in light of Obergefell and its promise to comply. The court earlier this month rejected the argument, concluding that Obergefell only spoke to the bans from Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and Michigan and that whatever the state's promises not to enforce, the marriage ban remains on the books. Interestingly, the rehearing petition is even more explicit that this is all about denying the plaintiffs prevailing-party status and eligibility for attorneys' fees.
I have written previously about why I do not believe these cases are moot--or at most the appeal is moot, but plaintiffs retain prevailing-party status because they previously obtained a preliminary injunction. I will add here that under my conception of departmentalism and the nature of precedent, Obergefell is largely beside the point for the state. Because precedent (even from SCOTUS) is not legally (as opposed to practically) binding on state officials' real-world conduct, that decision is not compelling them to do anything. What we have here is simple voluntary cessation, prompted by precedent and the state's voluntary choice to follow that precedent (rather than waiting until a court applies Obergefell and enjoins them). And voluntary cessation is generally not sufficient to moot a case. Ironically, then, this approach--which most civil-rights supporters likely would find anathema--is beneficial to plaintiffs trying to avoid mootness caused by new precedent.
One more thought, courtesy of Josh Blackman, my co-author: The state seems to spending a lot of money on this side issue. Simply put, the state is gambling: If it works, they lessen (and perhaps, although likely not, eliminate) all attorneys' fees; if it doesn't, they are driving those fees up even more. Of course, as Joanna Schwartz suggests, having to pay may not matter much to the government.
Saturday, August 22, 2015
The hole in Mireles v. Waco
One of the cases that sets students off in my Civil Rights class is Mireles v. Waco, in which the Court held that a judge enjoyed absolute immunity from a § 1983 suit that he ordered courtroom deputies to use excessive force in bringing a lawyer into the courtroom. They are particularly put off by the suggestion that the judge' absolute immunity means the plaintiff should sue the officers who used excessive force and who are not entitled to absolute immunity (although they likely can succeed on qualified immunity, as they reasonably could have believed their conduct was lawful because ordered by a judge).
That gap leads to Demuth v. County of Los Angeles, in which a Ninth Circuit panel (per Judge Kozinski) held that a deputy sheriff was not entitled to qualified immunity when he arrested an assistant public defender (at her own snarky request) in carrying out a judicial order to bring the attorney into the courtroom. There are a number of distinctions between this case and Mireles, including, as the court emphasized, that the judge did not order the deputy to arrest or otherwise force the attorney into the courtroom (the precise order was to bring the attorney and, if she refused, to bring her supervisor). The implication is that the deputy would have had immunity had the judge ordered the arrested.
Judge Kozinski closes the opinion by insisting that the case was an unfortunate waste of time and money over damages that "seem hardly more than nominal," which could have been resolved by "an admission that the deputy violated Demuth's constitutional rights, followed by mutual apologies and a handshake." (In fact, the deputy conceded that he did violate Demuth's rights in arresting her). The sticky point was qualified immunity, which officers assert even to avoid nominal damages. So while this seems an extreme case, it is a good example supporting Jim Pfander's argument that if a plaintiff explicitly seeks only nominal damages, the action should be treated as one for an injunction and qualified immunity should not be available. This gives us deterrence of this sort of small-scale violations* without imposing the fear of personal liability and chilling effect that justifies qualified immunity.
[*] In the absence of physical injury or wrongful incarceration, many constitutional claims involve small-money injuries for brief-but-unconstitutional detentions or encounters. But those encounters are at the heart of the policing problems in Ferguson and elsewhere, which eventually blow up to something larger. So perhaps making it easier for plaintiffs to prevail on those claims offers a step towards eliminating constitutional violations, large and small.
By the way, I do not want to sound too optimistic about the decision. The court cited no similar case law, instead relying on general, well-understood principles of when an arrest is forbidden to reach the conclusion that no reasonable officer could have believed this arrest was valid. So this case feels like a good candidate for a summary reversal of a denial of qualified immunity.
Thursday, August 20, 2015
The Poor: Twice the Victims of Lochner
The build up until now: The poor are politically powerless and unable to defend themselves in politics against laws harmful to their interests that might be motivated by antipathy toward them. Yet the Court does not consider the poor a discrete and insular minority entitled to special judicial protection from democratic politics. What gives? I think the explanation for this anomaly can be found in Lochner. The case for which several tomes have been written involved a challenge to a regulation that limited the number of hours bakers could work. The Supreme Court struck down the regulation explaining that it infringed on the Due Process liberty of contract. An underlying assumption seemed to be that employees had the market power to negotiate contracts that protected their health and well-being thus rendering regulations of work conditions arbitrary and unnecessary. Over the next thirty years, courts struck down many laws designed to protect mostly poor workers and other vulnerable participants in the capitalist market economy - these groups were the victims of the Lochner era.
Then came the political reaction and judicial repudiation of the Due Process liberty of contract. After the supposed "switch in time that saved nine," the Court in a series of opinions in the late 1930s and early 1940s determined that it was not consistent with the judicial role for it to intervene into economic and social welfare legislation. Rather than closely scrutinizing such laws to see if they violated the Due Process Clause, the Court held that it would only apply rational basis review to such democratic actions. Most of the focus has been on the Court's repudiation, at least for the moment, of the notion that the Due Process Clause protected a substantive right against arbitrary interference. But another part of the Lochner repudiation was the Court's rejection of heavy handed judicial intervention into the democratic process through the close scrutiny and usual invalidation of democratically enacted laws. More (including an Alanis Morisette shout out) below the fold ...
For democratic actions protective of the poor, the repudiation of heavy handed judicial intervention is perhaps a good thing. But the reaction to Lochner has since been used as an excuse to not closely scrutinize economic and social welfare legislation harmful to the poor and other vulnerable participants in the market economy. In a series of cases in the 1970s, the Court determined that deferential rational basis review was the appropriate level of scrutiny for economic and social welfare legislative actions, even if such actions were harmful to the poor and other vulnerable groups. To closely scrutinize these legislative actions would require the heavy handed judicial intervention into democratic politics that led to the crisis of judicial legitimacy during the Lochner era that the Court wanted to avoid.
And there is something to that concern. Say the Court determined that the poor were a suspect class because members of the group lacked the political power to defend themselves in democratic politics. The Court would then have to closely scrutinize state actions imposing fees on the use of government goods and services, reducing government benefits such as welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid, and increasing taxes on lower income individuals. The Court, with memories of Lochner floating in its head, doesn't want to be in the business of closely scrutinizing such laws.
The poor and other vulnerable members in our capitalist market economy have thus been victimized a second time by Lochner, this time by the judicial reaction to Lochner. As Alanis Morissette might question: Isn't it ironic, don't you think? While I have lost all capacity of understanding what is truly ironic after that song, might this be the irony of Lochner, don't you think? What this reaction to Lochner suggests is that the Court is unwilling to provide special judicial protection to the poor not because they have the capacity to defend themselves in democratic politics. But rather because there are too many laws that negatively impact the group.
Surely this is unsatisfying, at least for some of us. Even if we are concerned about too much judicial intervention into democratic politics, it certainly does not seem to be consistent with American republican values to simply leave a vulnerable minority group unprotected, subject to the vagaries of ideological winds. But if we accept the Court's preferences as legitimate, is there a way to provide judicial protection to the politically powerless and vulnerable poor while avoiding such extreme judicial intervention into democratic politics?
Tuesday, August 18, 2015
Settlement in Hood County, TX
On one hand, as I argued here, the availability of attorney's fees will make "resistance" to Obergefell quite expensive and, eventually, unpopular. On the other hand, how did the plaintiffs in this case rack up that much in attorney's fees? The office issued them the license a few hours after the complaint was filed, so the only expenses to that point should have been drafting and filing the complaint, which could not possibly cost that much. And settling seems an odd move by the county here, since the case should have been moot once the license issued.
Monday, August 17, 2015
Show Me a Hero
If you don't think civil rights litigation can make a good mini-series, check out HBO's Show Me a Hero, co-written by The Wire's David Simon. The series tells the story of the housing desegregation litigation in Yonkers, N.Y., in the 1980s and efforts by the city to fight an injunction requiring the building of 200 units in the white part of town. The six-hour program airs in three two-hour blocks on Sundays; the first aired last night (and will be repeated throughout the coming week). Some highly positive reviews here, here, and here. SCOTUS got one crack at this case in Spallone v. United States, in which the Court reversed a district court order imposing contempt fines against individual members of the city council for refusing to vote to approve a long-term housing plan that would spend federal dollars as required by the original injunction.
Based on the first two hours, this is definitely worth the viewing time.
Friday, August 14, 2015
Why marriage licenses?
A question about the religious opt-out arguments surrounding same-sex marriage. Note that I ask this question as someone who does not believe such opt-outs should be allowed and who believes that clerks and other public officials should lose these cases. I also ask as someone who does not share the particular religious views driving the discussion:
What is so special about issuing marriage licenses?
All of the action has been around clerks and clerks offices having to issue licenses to same-sex couples and demanding opt-outs from that ministerial task based on deeply held religious beliefs. But it seems to me that public officials and employees are required to process and handle all sorts of forms, requests, and documents that require them to recognize and treat as married same-sex couples. And this would seem to be just as much in violation of their deeply held religious beliefs. To name just a few:
• Granting a second-parent adoption to a same-sex couple (which requires a finding that the adopting parent is the spouse of the biological parent)
• Processing a death certificate listing a same-sex spouse (this was the claim at issue in Obergefell itself)
• Processing the paperwork for a person to receive health insurance and benefits from her state-employee same-sex spouse
• Processing a name change on a drivers' license for a same-sex couple who married and want to combine names or where one person wants to take the other's name
• Processing a joint tax return for a same-sex couple
I am sure there are others that I am not thinking of. And that is before we get into private actors and public-accommodation laws. Or less misiterial issues, such as police officers responding to domestic-violence calls or hospital staff allowing a person to make medical decisions (without a written advance directive) from a same-sex spouse. Yet we do not hear about similar opt-out requests in any of these contexts. And when state officials, such as Texas AG Ken Paxton, endorse these accommodations, they only spoke about protecting against having to issue licenses and never these or similar duties.
Wouldn't the religious-objection logic apply equally to each of these situations? And if not, why not?
Thursday, August 13, 2015
A first take on recalcitrant county clerks
Judge Bunning of the Eastern District of Kentucky preliminarily enjoined the county clerk of Rowan County from enforcing a policy of declining to issue all marriage licenses so as to avoid having to issue licenses to same-sex couples. This is the first detailed challenge to a county clerk refusing to abide by Obergefell and state orders to comply with Obergefell.
Update: The office turned away a same-sex couple (although not the plaintiffs) this morning (H/T: Josh).
Thoughts after the jump.
1) The policy involved here was especially broad. The clerk did not argue that she should not personally have to issue licenses but that another staffer in the office would. Rather, she objected to licenses being issued in her name as the county clerk, insisting that doing so both compelled her to speak and cause her to endorse and enable conduct that violates her religious beliefs.
2) The case was less about Obergefell than about the general fundamental right to marry (which, under Obergefell, applies equally to same- and opposite-sex couples). The right was substantially burdened for all couples either having to go to a neighboring county to receive a license or get the license from the county judge (who is authorized to issue licenses if the clerk is unable to do so). Interestingly, unlike the Fifth Circuit in the clinic-regulation cases, the court recognized that requiring people to travel (perhaps as long as an hour) to another county could burden those who like the financial, physical, or practical means to travel and thus should not be considered a less-burdensome alternative.
3) The court held that Kentucky county clerks act as state, rather than county, officials in making office policies with respect to issuing marriage licenses. This does not affect an action for injunctive relief. But it does affect the potential for plaintiffs to pursue damages against recalcitrant officials and offices, which is another tool for ensuring compliance with Supreme Court precedent. Damages are not available against state (as opposed to local) entities, so the clerk's office cannot be sued for damages,* although the clerk herself could be sued both for her own refusal to issue licenses, as well as for her role in supervising or ordering her employees not to issue licenses. But being able to sue the office means the plaintiffs would not have to deal with qualified immunity, which is not available to municipalities. The clerk herself can raise qualified immunity, which means damages are not going to be available, at least until a significant body of law builds up.
[*] The court here attributed it to the Eleventh Amendment, a common and unfortunate mistake. Section 1983 (the source of a constitutional damages action) is § 5 legislation that, at least in constitutional cases, is congruent and proportionate to the rights protected by § 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment. The problem is that the Court held that Congress did not abrogate sovereign immunity because "persons" in § 1983 does not include sovereigns. But, as the doctrine developed, Congress could have done so. Thus, the unavailability of damages against the state on constitutional claims is a product of statutory interpretation, not the Constitution.
Update: Note the nuance with respect to the couple denied the license this morning. The clerk is not in contempt because the injunction only protects the five named couples and only obligates her to issue licenses to those five couples. This new couple has to go back to Judge Bunning (either in a new lawsuit or by intervening) and have the injunction extended. Then someone can hold the clerk in contempt--which, frankly, is exactly what she is hoping will happen.
Further Update: This story reports that one of the plaintiff couples (including the named plaintiff) also tried to get licenses on Thursday and were denied. And now the clerk can be held in contempt.
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
The Process of Marriage Equality
The Process of Marriage Equality, co-authored with Josh Blackman (South Texas), is now up on SSRN and coming to a journal office near you. This is a comprehensive take on the unique civ pro/fed courts/jurisdiction issues that arose during the litigation campaign leading to Obergefell. It incorporates and expands on my earlier discussions of some of these issues, published here and at Northwestern Law Review Online, and the stuff Josh has been writing at his blog.
The abstract is after the jump.
This article offers the first comprehensive history of the marriage-equality litigation process leading from Windsor to Obergefell. It explores how four aspects of federal procedure and jurisdiction doctrine both enabled and frustrated marriage equality’s advance to the Supreme Court. First, we examine common misconceptions about how judgments, injunctions, and judicial precedent control real-world conduct and how litigation brings about legal reform. These misconceptions reached their nadir in Alabama in spring 2015. Guided by Chief Justice Roy Moore, Alabama officials properly declined to follow persuasive precedent, prompting unfortunate and inaccurate comparisons to George Wallace and Massive Resistance to Brown and desegregation. Second, we examine the pivotal, but underappreciated, role of stays pending appeal in constitutional litigation. In particular, we consider how denials of stays triggered concurrent races to the courts of appeals and to the altars. The Court’s transmission of signals through unexplained stays and denials of certiorari exacerbated the confusion in the lower courts and the states, highlighting a penumbra of what one scholar calls the Court’s “shadow docket.” Finally, we examine unsuccessful efforts by state attorneys to move marriage cases out of federal court by initiating state-court litigation and urging federal abstention. This article makes a first contribution to the scholarly discussion of marriage equality by focusing on the critical, but underdeveloped, procedural nuances of high-stakes civil rights litigation. By considering the process of marriage equality, we better understand this societal evolution and future constitutional revolutions.
Tuesday, August 11, 2015
Following Obergefell in the lower courts
Lots of action within the Eighth Circuit in the lower courts on how to apply Obergefell to bans in other states. Judge Crabtree of the District of Kansas* issued an initial order (H/T: Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSBlog, who has a nice summary of the decision, as well as some other development). The Eight Circuit issued substantially identical per curiam orders in appeals involving laws from Nebraska, South Dakota, and Arkansas, affirming preliminary injunctions or final judgments invalidating the laws in those states.
* Which is not located in the Eighth Circuit.
Some comments after the jump.
First, Judge Crabtree nails the connection between Obergefell and this case. The SCOTUS decision "considered same-sex marriage bans enacted in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. It did not rule, at least not directly, on Kansas’ ban against such marriages. The Court’s job now is to apply Obergefell to the Kansas law." Once he reached the merits, the judge necessarily concluded that Obergefell resolves the plaintiffs' constitutional claim and entitles them to judgment on their claims for relief. The Eighth Circuit similarly applied Obergefell to conclude that the challenged laws are unconstitutional.
Second, the courts rejected the arguments that Obergefell moots these challenges. They all recognized that, because Obergefell itself compelled no action by officials in these four states, their mootness arguments amount to promises of voluntary cessation, which typically is not enough to moot a case. The marriage bans remain on the books in every state. At best, officials in Kansas seemed to be moving towards compliance with Obergefell, but had not yet gotten there (for example, it still was not clear a same-sex married couple could file a joint tax return or change names on drivers' licenses), but had not necessarily gotten there. And the fact that officials in every state are issuing licenses to same-sex couples is not sufficient, since that was being done on the strength of a district court's original injunction.
Third, in what might be an interesting development (one I had not previously thought of), the court of appeals and district court both suggested that the states' efforts at voluntary compliance perhaps affected whether permanent injunctive relief is unnecessary or impermissible. Judge Crabtree ordered further briefing on the question and the Eighth Circuit left it to the district courts on remand. Compliance was not a question of constitutional mootness, but of the court's discretionary equity analysis. Importantly, however, this did not affect declaratory relief, which remained proper and which will be entered in every case. This is significant for purposes of plaintiffs recovering attorney's fees--a declaratory judgment, even unaccompanied by an injunction, is sufficient to make them prevailing parties.
Fourth, Kansas tried to argue that the injunction requiring the state-employee health plan administrator to include same-sex spouses in the plan violated the Eleventh Amendment because it required money from the state in the form of benefits. But the court rejected this argument quickly and correctly--this falls into the "prospective compliance" exception, under which a purely prospective injunction is not barred by the Eleventh Amendment, even if compliance costs the state money.
Update I: In response to Maureen's comment, I shorthanded the point too much. A declaratory judgment alone will not always merit attorney's fees. But in the marriage cases, it should be, as there has been a change in the defendants' behavior and in the relationship between the defendants and the plaintiffs.
Update II: An alert reader points me to Sam Bray's The Myth of the Mild Declaratory Judgment (reviewed by Marin Levy here). Sam's theory is that declaratory judgments and injunctions represent alternative remedies, each appropriate in a different type of case. Under that theory, a D/J without an injunction is the appropriate remedy in the marriage cases, which require a change of behavior but minimal judicial oversight or monitoring.
Middle ground on departmentalism
Michael Dorf discusses Mike Huckabee's (unwitting? incomplete?) endorsement of departmentalism during last week's GOP presidential debate. Huckabee explained that he considers fetuses "persons" for Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment purposes and, as Dorf understands him, would act on that constitutional understanding. And Huckabee spoke not just of pushing a personhood constitutional amendment, but of a "bolder" approach." But, Dorf argues, Huckabee did not seem to realize that "his 'bolder' option--acting to protect the rights of the unborn (rights the Supreme Court has never recognized), even when that abridges the rights of women (rights that the Court has recognized repeatedly)--was, in effect, advocacy of "uncivil disobedience by a president," bringing him into direct conflict with the Supreme Court.
But is it necessarily a conflict? And is any conflict problematic? And how might the conflict arise and play out?
In my current article (more on that in a few days), I discuss and endorse Gary Lawson's "middle ground" approach to departmentalism. Lawson distinguishes between judgments and precedent; he argues that the President must abide by and enforce the former, but remains free to disregard the latter if it conflicts with his independent constitutional vision. In other words, if the Court adopts a constitutional rule and issues an injunction requiring the President to act (or refrain from acting) in a given way, he must abide by that injunction, even if he disagrees with the Court's constitutional conclusions.*
[*] With respect to the President, there is a second component to judgments, because the President also is responsible for enforcing federal judgments even if not party to them (e.g., enforcing a federal judgment enjoining the state from enforcing an abortion ban).
But, as I have been arguing with respect to the marriage-equality litigation, the injunction applies to the specific parties in that case, but extends no further. Thus, the President's obligation to follow the Court extends only as far as the judgment in that case, but not to other cases, issues, and parties. Instead, the President can act on his independent constitutional vision, even in the face of competing Supreme Court precedent. Of course, the courts remain bound to apply Supreme Court precedent when the President's actions reach the stage of judicial challenge or enforcement. And they will apply that precedent to produce a judgment against him, which, under Lawson's theory, he will then be obligated to enforce and obey.
Lawson's departmentalism rests on the idea that what courts uniquely do is decide cases and issue judgments, which control everyone who is subject to them or their obligations. But the power to interpret the Constitution simpliciter is not unique to the courts; it instead resides in all public officials (federal, state, and local) who swear an oath to uphold the Constitution. Only when the judicial interpretation is reduced to a judgment does it become supreme--and then only within the limited scope of that judgment.
How this plays out with a President Huckabee committed to the belief that fetuses are constitutional persons depends on what he tries to do. The point is that none of the following examples should be labeled defiance or disobedience.
• Decline to enforce a law such as the Free Access to Clinic Entrances Act, thereby allowing protesters to make it impossible (at least as a matter of federal law) for women to gain access to clinics and to exercise their rights. No real conflict here. For one thing, the Constitution does not require F.A.C.E. or require that the federal government act to protect women seeking access to clinics. This is unlikely in any event, as Dorf notes that Huckabee has indicated his belief that the President must enforce all laws, even those he disagrees with)
• Pursue federal murder charges against a woman who terminates a pregnancy in the first month, because, in his view, this woman took a human life and should be prosecuted (put aside federal jurisdictional issues for the moment). This prosecution would be invalid under Roe. Charges are sure to be dismissed or any conviction almost certainly would be reversed or overturned. But Huckabee does not engage in "uncivil disobedience" in pursuing this prosecution. Although clear precedent renders the prosecution futile (which Huckabee certainly knows from the start), he can act on his constitutional vision in initiating and pursuing charges. Once the courts dismisses those charges in light of precedent, Huckabee must comply with that order, although he also could initiate a new prosecution against someone else until that case is also dismissed.
• Sign and enforce a bill outlawing all abortions in all circumstances. Again, this law would clearly conflict with Supreme Court precedent. But the point of Lawson's approach is that there is nothing unlawful about the act of signing the bill or taking steps to prosecute people under it, so long as he believes it is constitutional. This is so even if he can predict that courts will declare the law unconstitutional. Obviously, he would be immediately enjoined from enforcing the law by a district court applying Supreme Court precedent. And any efforts to enforce it almost certainly would result in dismissal of the charges. And the President must abide by those judgments as to all plaintiffs.
So why don't more presidents do this? And why would Huckabee himself likely not do this? One answer is that there are political limitations to these moves. The public perception and media reportage would be that Huckabee is disobeying or defying the Supreme Court.While incorrect (absent a specific court order in a specific case), the force of that narrative is strong and may overwhelm his constitutional convictions. The public would not countenance the President prosecuting women for murder or signing laws that everyone knows will be declared invalid. Fair enough. But Lawson's point is that this is precisely how the system should work.
The point is that it would be politics pushing Huckabee away from acting on his unique vision in the face of a competing judicial vision. Neither the Constitution nor the structure of the federal government has that effect solely on the strength of precedent, as opposed to an eventual binding judgment.
Monday, August 10, 2015
The Curious Case of the Suspect De-Classification of Wealth
The last episode left off with a cliff hanger of sorts: a foreign LLM student in my Con Law class asked me why we never discussed economic class and the poor? I followed up with a question in the last blog asking why we as legal scholars do not engage class and the poor more than we do now. One response is that legal scholarship tends to follow what the Supreme Court does. Since the Supreme Court rarely engages economic class and the poor, neither do most legal scholars. But why doesn't the Supreme Court address controversies involving economic class and the poor? Focusing more narrowly on equal protection doctrine, I explained to my student that we do not engage economic class and the poor because wealth is not a suspect classification and the poor are not a suspect class. The Court only applies a very deferential rational basis review to laws that classify on the basis of wealth and there just isn't much interesting to say about rational basis review unless, of course, the review has some bite to it. This is where I show my students the famous Val Kilmer bite in Top Gun, if you don't know the scene involving Maverick and Iceman you need to check it out ... that, my friends, is the bite of rational basis review with bite. So my answer to the student was a very simple, unsophisticated hornbook one, but one that I thought was right.
But then the student asked: why aren't the poor treated as a suspect class? She went through the criteria for determining a suspect class established in case law and argued that they all would be satisfied. (1) The poor arguably share obvious or distinguishable characteristics based on where they live and what they possess (I teach that immutability has faded as a relevant criteria in light of the alienage cases and subsequent judicial broadening of the criteria to include the obvious or distinguishable nature of the trait); (2) the poor have suffered a history of discrimination; (3) being poor is not relevant to a person's ability to contribute to society (a criteria the Court used to reject claims that the disabled and the aged made for suspect class status); and (4) the poor are politically powerless. I pushed back on each of these points, but I ultimately agreed with the student. I then explained that the Court in San Antonio Independent School Districts v. Rodriguez declared that wealth was not a suspect classification and I encouraged her to read the case for herself as the reasoning for this determination would be provided there. I then decided read the case for myself and discovered something quite curious.The Court in Rodriguez never declared that wealth was not a suspect classification. In the case, residents of a property-tax poor school district brought an equal protection challenge to a school financing system that apportioned money to school districts on the basis of property taxes. The challengers relying on an earlier Supreme Court case in which the Court declared that "lines drawn on the basis of wealth or property, like those of race or traditionally disfavored," claimed that the school finance system discriminated against a suspect class, the poor, and should be subject to strict scrutiny. The Court disagreed, but not because it determined that wealth was not a suspect classification. Instead, the Court explained that the school financing system did not actually classify on the basis of wealth. According to the majority, the challengers "made no effort to demonstrate that [the school financing system] operates to the peculiar disadvantage of any class fairly definable as indigent, or as composed of persons whose incomes are beneath any designated poverty level." The Court, therefore, did not need to decide whether the poor were a suspect class.
The decision was not entirely devoid of a suspect class determination. The Court did hold that the challengers' claim that the law discriminated "against all those who, irrespective of their personal incomes, happen to reside in relatively poorer school districts," involved a class that was too large, diverse, and amorphous to be considered suspect. In other words, residents of a property-tax poor district, which included wealthy, middle class, and poor individuals, would not be considered a suspect class. I re-read the case a second time, a third time, and was left floored. How I understood the case contradicted assertions in a leading Constitutional Law casebook, Constitutional Law hornbook, and several law review articles. Why do leading scholars cite to Rodriguez as denying suspect classification status to wealth when it never did any such thing? Is it still an open question?
But then I read cases that cited Rodriguez and what I found was even more curious. In the case of Maher v. Roe decided four years after Rodriguez, the Court citing to Rodriguez asserted that it "ha[d] never held that financial need alone identifies a suspect class for purposes of equal protection analysis." All true, but ultimately unresponsive to the question of whether the poor are a suspect class. Then in the case of Harris v. McRae decided three years after Maher, the Court without any reasoning and citing only to Maher concluded "poverty, standing alone, is not a suspect classification." And that is end of the story of wealth as a suspect classification.
Since establishing the suspect class standard in 1973, the Court has denied every group's claim to suspect class status. But it has never treated any group's claim in the same superficial and disingenuous manner as it treated the claim of the poor. Why is that the case and more importantly, perhaps, why have Constitutional Law scholars, for the most part, accepted the judicial denial of suspect class status to the poor premised on nothing more than judicial fiat? Is the cynical answer provided to my prior post the right one - that the problems of the bottom 5% (or perhaps bottom 20%) aren't terribly pressing for those in the top 5%?
Wednesday, August 05, 2015
Whither class, whither the poor in legal scholarship?
In 2004, the American Political Science Association Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy issued a report on American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality. It started with a damning critique of American Democracy:
"Today ... the voices of American citizens are raised and heard unequally. The privileged participate more than others and are increasingly well organized to press their demands on government. Public officials, in turn, are much more responsive to the privileged than to average citizens and the least affluent. Citizens with lower or moderate incomes speak with a whisper that is lost to the ears of inattentive government officials, while the advantaged roar with clarity and consistency that policy-makers readily hear and routinely follow."The task force report was associated with a significant increase in focus on class-based political inequality and the political power of the poor in political science. The empirical findings were quite stunning. In the book Unequal Democracy, Larry Bartels examining senate roll call votes in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the ideological views of different income classes found that while "senators seem to have been quite responsive to the ideological views of their middle and high-income constituents, ... the views of low-income constituents had no discernible impact on the voting behavior of their senators." In Affluence and Influence, Martin Gilens examining a range of government policies and the survey-based preferences of persons in different income classes similarly found that "government policy bears absolutely no relationship to the degree of support or opposition among the poor." It was only when the poor shared the views of the wealthy and middle classes that government policy accorded with their preferences. Several other scholars have joined the fray adding further empirical richness by testing other measures of the political power of the poor and legislative responsiveness to the interest of different income groups.
In light of the Great Recession and its aftermath, this scholarship is quite timely. Economic inequality has only grown. The Occupy Movement focused attention on growing wealth disparities and even politicians are talking a bit more about inequality with some deigning to look beyond the middle class and mention the poor (with low-income individuals being the preferred label of Republicans and working families being the preferred label of Democrats). Given the Law and Order type orientation of legal scholarship (ripped from the headlines and straight into your law reviews), you would think that we would be all over this. But my hein online searches into legal scholarship on economic class has yielded disappointing results. There was a flurry of legal scholarship in the heady days of the late 1960s and early 1970s when the focus was on welfare rights and special judicial protection for the poor. There was another flurry in the mid-1990s when legal scholars debated whether class-based affirmative action should substitute for race-based affirmative action. And that's about it.
I don't mean to suggest that legal scholarship is bereft of discussions about economic class. Often it is implicated in scholarship on other issues such as race, gender, disability, criminal procedure, bankruptcy, etc. And over the last several years, poverty law conferences have been organized, Class Crits have emerged, and even a Poverty Law casebook has been written. But my sense is that class and issues of poverty law remain in the backwoods of legal scholarship. And I would go further in suggesting that it is in the deep backwoods of legal scholarship on the Equal Protection Clause.
Why do we as legal scholars not engage class and the poor more than we do now? A couple of years ago, a foreign LLM student came up to me at the end of my Con Law course and asked why we never discussed economic class and the poor? In full justificatory mode, I fumbled for an answer that upon later research proved to be entirely unsatisfying. Since then I have thought of other answers. But before I offer mine, I would love to hear yours. And if you think we optimally engage issues of economic class and the poor in legal scholarship, I'd love to hear those perspectives as well.
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Crazy in Alabama: Judicial Process and the Last Stand Against Marriage Equality
This puts together much of what I have been writing here about the mess in Alabama between January and the Court's decision in Obergefell. I reach the same basic conclusion--obnoxious Roy Moore rhetoric aside, everything that happened in Alabama in those six months was consistent with the judicial process and with the traditional scope of injunctions and district court precedent.
Friday, July 10, 2015
So it seems everyone thought Nebraska had a great idea on how to end marriage-equality litigation while avoiding attorney's fees. Arkansas and South Dakota have joined Nebraska in asking the Eighth Circuit to dismiss appeals as moot and vacate the various injunctions. Kansas is asking the Tenth Circuit District of Kansas to do the same. And now Alabama is asking the Northern District of Alabama (in a recognition suit that had not yet proceeded to even a preliminary injunction) to do the same.When I wrote about Nebraska's mootness argument, I explained why voluntary cessation from the state agreeing to abide by Obergefell should not be sufficient to moot the case, or at least not sufficient to justify vacating the district court judgment and order. But looking at these new motions, particularly from Alabama, I I think I have identified a more fundamental problem in their arguments. State officials are arguing that Obergefell conclusively resolved the constitutional question of same-sex marriage across the country, so there is nothing for the district courts to do here and no need for a district court judgment and injunction against officials in these states.
But that misunderstands what a Supreme Court opinion does and how precedent operates. The Supreme Court decision established the operative constitutional framework and analysis, but it it spoke only to the laws in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee and the obligations of officials in those states. As to any other state, it is necessary for another court to apply that constitutional framework, as precedent, to the laws and actions in that state. Even if the answer is obvious, since the precedent is binding and there is no way to distinguish it, that additional step is necessary, at least so long as there remains a genuine threat that this other state's anti-SSM laws might be enforced (and within the parameters of mootness doctrine).
In a sense, the states are trying to have it both ways. For months, many states and state officials insisted that a decision by a lower federal court was not binding on non-parties, did not require non-parties to do anything, and did not protect non-parties. This argument was, in fact, correct, although it happened to work to the state's advantage. Now states are trying to argue that a SCOTUS decision is, in essence, a nationwide injunction applicable to all bans on same-sex marriage and to all officials in all 50 states. This argument is, in fact, incorrect, although it also works to the state's advantage.
The most ironic example of this is Kansas. After the Tenth Circuit twice declared that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees a right to marriage equality (in cases from Utah and Oklahoma) the Kansas Attorney General initiated a state mandamus action to stop a Kansas county clerk from issuing licenses to same-sex couples until a judge in the District of Kansas decided a constitutional challenge to Kansas' ban. Clearly, in the AG's view, binding precedent was not alone sufficient to justify compliance; there needed to be a decision by a court expressly addressing Kansas law and its enforcement by Kansas officials. And never did Kansas officials suggest that the Tenth Circuit's constitutional decision mooted the challenge to Kansas' law. But the Tenth Circuit's decision on the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment is as binding on federal courts within the Tenth Circuit as a decision by SCOTUS. So if the extra step is necessary to apply circuit precedent, it must also be necessary to apply SCOTUS precedent.
Wednesday, July 08, 2015
Same-sex couples in recalcitrant counties and states have a problem, as illustrated by this case in Hood County, TX. Recall what happened: The county dragged its feet in issuing license to same-sex couples, a couple sued for an injunction compelling the license, the county within a few hours relented and issued the license. As I said previously, the case is now moot, but the plaintiffs are not prevailing parties because they did not obtain a judicial decree guaranteeing that license, therefore they cannot recover attorney's fees (which would be small anyway--just the amount to draft short complaint and TRO motion and file the thing). But attorney's fees are the driving force for compliance--recalcitrance needs to become expensive in order for officials to fall in line.
One solution would be for the court to impose sanctions on the clerk. But then the question is from what source? Rule 11 only applies to papers and other things presented to the court; here, the case has become moot before the defendant clerk has even appeared, much less presented something to the court. Section 1927 only applies to attorneys, and then only for conduct that "multiples" proceedings. So that leaves the court's inherent authority to sanction, including through attorney's fees, in order to compensate, deter, or punish. So does inherent sanction authority reach the type of (mis)conduct we see here: Pre-litigation refusal to comply with precedent, forcing a lawsuit, and immediately acquiescing before the court has an opportunity to hear the case? (In contrast to forcing a lawsuit in order to argue for overturning Obergefell)?
Monday, July 06, 2015
What can plaintiffs sue for after Obergefell?
A same-sex couple sued the County Clerk of Hood County, TX in the Northern District of Texas on Monday, after they were denied a marriage license (purportedly because the office did not yet have appropriate forms). With several hours of the suit being filed, the office issued the license. Precisely how it should go.
Here is where it gets tricky: According to the above article, the plaintiffs want their attorneys' fees and say they will not drop the lawsuit "until the clerk’s office agrees to issue marriage licenses to 'all couples, gay and straight, without delay.'" But neither of those things should happen:
1) The lawsuit is now moot and should be dismissed as such, since the plaintiffs got what they sued for--their marriage license.
2) The plaintiffs lack standing to seek relief for all couples, gay and straight. So it sounds nice, but that is not how litigation works. Perhaps if they certify as a class action, although I need to see the complaint to know whether they are trying to do that. Of course, that does not resolve the mootness problem.
3) The plaintiffs probably will not get attorneys' fees, since they are not prevailing parties. The defendants complied without any judicial order or injunction. And even though compliance was obtained because of the lawsuit and the certainty of liability, the Supreme Court rejected the so-called catalyst theory of attorneys' fees, demanding that a party prevails only if they obtain some judicial decree in their favor.
4) The solution for the plaintiffs may be to sue for money damages for the inconvenience and humiliation caused by delay unique to same-sex couples. Assuming that short delay constitutes a violation, the claim only would be worth $ 1 in nominal damages, but it avoids mootness and prevailing-party issues.
Wednesday, July 01, 2015
Marriage and Other Favored Unions
So we have a fundamental right to same-sex marriage. In the most obvious way, the Court’s holding was good: if the state is going to privilege a particular association (here, marriage), it should not discriminate against persons who try to take advantage of it. Fair enough. But in another way both the government’s favored treatment of marriage and especially the majority’s decidedly not-postmodern love letter to that particular form of association (Alito’s comment that the majority’s vision of liberty “has a distinctively postmodern meaning” notwithstanding) should give us cause for pause. There is another area where the state has favored a particular type of association over others: labor unions, which have been favored over other types of worker organizations. That preference has not worked out well for workers; we would do well to think more about whether the story of state preference for marriage will turn out the same.
Associations of Workers and the NLRA
Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act years ago and, with it, enacted a particular vision of what worker associations should be and how they should operate. That vision included both (1) exclusive representation and (2) a commitment to the view that the interests of workers and employers are fundamentally opposed and antagonistic.
At first the NLRA benefited workers (if rapidly increasing unionization rates are any indication), but over time that has largely ceased to be the case. The government restricted covered labor organization activity and the Act stifled the ability of covered workers to develop innovative forms of worker organizations that could better help them achieve their particular interest. One example of this stifling (and one that I discuss in a forthcoming article) comes out of the Act’s prohibition on company “support” of labor organizations. This ban has in turn dramatically limited the development of mutually beneficial collaborations between workers and companies looking to sell themselves to consumers as “conscious capitalists.” As a result of the Act’s narrow vision of appropriate worker organization, it is not surprising that innovative forms of worker organization (the Fair Food Council being just one example) have only occurred among workers who are not covered by the NLRA at all.
In short, when the government favors a particular vision of worker association – even with good intentions – it also frustrates experimentation with other forms – forms that may in fact be better for at least some workers.
Associations of Individuals and Marriage
Something similar might be said about marriage. Like the vision of worker organization demanded by the NLRA, marriage (including same-sex marriage) is but one of the many forms romantic and family associations can take. And like a traditional labor union, a traditional marriage (same-sex marriage included) will work better for some than others. The government, however, does much to encourage traditional marriage. Spousal privilege and military, social security, and immigration benefits being just a few examples. And these benefits, like all incentives, serve to promote marriage over non-matrimonial forms of romantic and family association. Those benefits alone might already have been enough to stifle experimentation with other forms. But the majority opinion in Obergefell, if its love letter to marriage is read and its views adopted, imposes an arguably different and more potent type of cost on would-be experimenters: stigma. As the majority sees it, marriage is of “transcendent importance” and “promise[es] nobility and dignity to all persons”. It is marriage that “embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.” Without it, “children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser.” (emphasis added). Given all this, a reader would think marriage the sole means by which we come to flourish in relationships – that families and romantic relations structured without it truly are lesser. On that view, failure to get on board with the institution really does deserve to be stigmatized.
For those who think the Court’s substantive view on marriage’s importance right and the government’s subsequent promotion of it good, this all won’t seem bad. But for those who think the highest ideals of love and family might be better achieved – at least for them – through other forms of association, the majority’s reification of the centrality of marriage to the good life will strike them as yet another barrier to a future where those ideals can be realized. As with the story of worker associations, it might take us a long time to realize that the government’s “help” of our association of choice today won’t actually be so helpful tomorrow.
 A few argue exclusive representation was not required from the start but it certainly was treated as such soon afterward. Either way, my point is the same.
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Some movement in Alabama
1) Counsel for the plaintiff class in Strawser has taken the position that the stay on Judge Granade's class injunction lifted as soon as SCOTUS issued its opinion. Granade's order stated that the injunction was stayed "until the Supreme Court issues its ruling" in Obergefell, which happened at 10 a.m. Friday. Thus, the injunction--binding every probate judge in the state to issue a license to any same-sex couple who requests one and otherwise qualifies--is in force and readily enforceable by contempt. Unlike in Nebraska, there was no need for a motion to lift the stay.
2) Plaintiff counsel notified defense counsel of this view and asked defense counsel to notify each probate judge that they were subject to the injunction and could be subject to contempt proceedings if they failed to comply. Plaintiff counsel particularly noted the variance, including some probate judges waiting for SCOTUS to issue its mandate, others issuing licenses to opposite-sex but not same-sex couples, and others not issuing licenses at all.
3) The Association of County Commissions of Alabama, which provides probate judges with liability insurance, recommended "that probate judges begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the same manner and pursuant to the same requirements applied to traditional couples." Not sure about that "traditional couples" phrasing, but you get the point. This is just a recommendation. But since the ACCA is the one that indemnifies the probate judges if they get sued, hit with attorney's fees, or held in contempt for non-compliance, the recommendation might carry some weight.
4) The Supreme Court of Alabama issued an order in the mandamus case reminding probate judges that the parties in Obergefell have 25 days to seek rehearing and ordering new briefing and motions to be filed by July 6. Presumably, the briefing on two points: 1) arguing that the mandamus must be vacated because its underlying reasoning does not survive Obergefell and/or 2) arguing that each probate judge should be released from the mandamus because each is bound by the now-enforceable district court injunction.
This order sent everyone scrambling to figure out what it meant. The confusion was compounded (naturally) by Roy Moore, who apparently believes that SCOTUS decisions do not take effect until the period for rehearing has passed. Moore first argued that probate judges were prohibited from issuing marriage licenses until the period for rehearing lapsed; he then said that no probate judge was required to issue licenses within that period, insisting that the issue is "stalled" in Alabama until SCOTUS can no longer grant rehearing. Of course, that ignores the fact that the real work in Alabama is being done not by Obergefell, but by Judge Granade's injunction, which became enforceable immediately.
Monday, June 29, 2015
The Most Dangerous Precedent (or, A Silly Extravagance)
In today’s concurrence to Glossip v. Gross, Justice Scalia identifies a precedent that “has caused more mischief to our jurisprudence, to our federal system, and to our society than any other that comes to mind.”
The villain is Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86 (1958), which held that it was unconstitutional to strip a native-born American of his 14th-Amendment-provided citizenship as punishment for briefly deserting his military post while serving in Morocco in 1944. (“He had been gone less than a day and had willingly surrendered to an officer on an Army vehicle while he was walking back towards his base.”) The mischief arises from a passage frequently quoted from Chief Justice Warren’s plurality to the effect that the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause “must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”
Let’s leave aside that the Trop language is a tolerable paraphrase of Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349 (1910), which rejected an originalist approach to the Eighth Amendment to hold that fifteen years of hard labor for falsifying a public document was unconstitutional. Has Trop caused more mischief “to our society” than any other case that Justice Scalia can think of? Even if you disagree with the Trop language, at worst it means that a handful of persons can successfully challenge an extraordinary criminal sentence, and that a larger handful can make colorable but unsuccessful challenges to theirs. This is worse for society than any other case that the justice has decried? Than the decisions mandating a right to abortion, to sodomy, to same-sex marriage, or to coeducation at the Virginia Military Institute? No, society is most harmed by jurisprudence that prevents the government from getting as close as it possibly can to the very edge of cruel and unusual punishment.
In a post from last week, I argued that some fire-breathing dissents can be worth teaching in an introductory Con Law class. But now that Justice Scalia has declared, in his Obergefell dissent, that one should expect “separate concurring or dissenting opinions to contain extravagances, even silly extravagances, of thought and expression,” I need to add a note of caution. A silly extravagance like the overblown attack on Trop v. Dulles can teach students lessons that I would prefer not to impart: that it’s more important to sound good than to be correct (long live truthiness); that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds; that picking your battles is for suckers; and that once you’ve risen to a prominent place in your profession, nobody can stop you from phoning it in. These lessons may have bits of truth to them, but I’d rather focus on others.
(Apologies for shooting fish in a barrel, but since we're talking about the quality of legal prose...)
Texas responds to Obergefell
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has issued a non-binding opinion letter about implementation of Obergefell. Paxton concludes that 1) county clerks and their employees retain religious freedoms that may allow them to opt-out of issuing licenses to same-sex couples, but it will be fact-dependent and 2) State judges and county justices of the peace may similarly seek an opt-out, depending on the facts. The county clerk in Bell County followed the letter to announce that her office would issue licenses to same-sex couples, with individual employees able to seek an opt-out. Josh Blackman has detailed thoughts; Josh argues that this becomes a matter of staffing, rising to a constitutional problem only if no one in the office is willing to issue licenses to same-sex couples or if there are excessive delays or administrative difficulties.
I believe Josh basically has it right, although I would offer a few caveats.
First, as Josh notes and as I argued in a listserv discussion, dignitary harms caused by discriminatory delays or by being sent to a special line or a different clerk (to say nothing of the extreme case in which the clerk gives a lecture against same-sex marriage before moving the couple to a different line), may be challenged in an action for damages, even if the couple gets the license. The claim probably is worth only $ 1 in nominal damages, but it could proceed and could produce a judgment against the clerk and/or the office. There is a qualified immunity question that goes to the scope of Obergefell--does it mean there is a right of same-sex couples to obtain licenses and to marry in all respects on the same terms (vis a vis the State) as opposite-sex couples. A supervisory or municipal liability claim also is likely if the delays and dignitary harms were caused by employees carrying out formal policies.
Second (and this may be because my religious beliefs do not cause me to oppose same-sex marriage), even recognizing the administrative need, this makes me uneasy because it smacks bit of separate-but-equal. It relies on separate lines and separate clerks. Only it now is being presented as the least restrictive means for the government to satisfy its compelling interest in issuing marriage licenses to qualifying couples. I suppose if it is done respectfully (and a listserv comment indicated this has been working well in Utah), there is not a problem. But if we all can agree that a clerk's office could not have a special line for mixed-race or interfaith couples (assuming we can), why are same-sex couples and same-sex marriages different? Alternatively, could that concern be resolved by broadening the opt-out to extend not only to opposition to same-sex marriage, but also to other religious objections to other licenses?
Third, what happens if there is only one clerk in the office who will issue these licenses? Can he never break for lunch? Must the office, at least for marriage licenses, shut down for that hour? I do not imagine the office could say "No licenses to same-sex couples from noon-1 p.m."
Obergefell in Haiku
At McSweeney's, Daniela Lapidous has helpfully condensed each of the opinions in Obergefell to a haiku. Chief Justice Roberts, for example:
I support you all
No, really, I do, but this
Isn't our problem
For the rest, see The SCOTUS Marriage Decision in Haiku. (Hat tip to Leah Lee.)
Strange Bedfellows #11: Subsequent History Surprises
This post is part of the Strange Bedfellows series.
Most Constitutional Law classes discuss how the system can correct its mistakes. If one branch or level of government errs, others can respond, pushing the substance of the law to a new equilibrium. Teaching the subsequent history of anti-canonical cases is one good way to demonstrate this point. Constitutional amendments erased Dred Scott and Pollock, later court decisions overruled Lochner, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act made Geduldig largely irrelevant, and the Georgia Supreme Court held that the sodomy statute upheld in Bowers v. Hardwick violated the state constitution. To show how SCOTUS does not always have the last word, my casebook includes short units called “Flash-Forwards” that tell the rest of the story (or at least some of it). Once students are attuned to possibilities outside the courtroom, they can have a good classroom discussion about what a concerned citizen, legislator, or executive branch official might do in response to a troubling court decision.
It is less common to spend time on the subsequent history of cases that are canonical—the ones considered good law, never overruled. As usually presented in casebooks, Cooper v. Aaron (1958), Palmore v. Sidoti (1984) and United States v. Carolene Products (1938) are all cases where the Court got things right, guiding the system to a proper equilibrium. But in each of these cases, the victory promised in the canonical opinion played out differently on the ground, with the results for the prevailing party being less than advertised. The subsequent histories of these canonical cases could in theory be as deserving of class time as the subsequent histories of anti-canonical cases—the basis for a discussion about the value of a court victory.
But I confess that I have not had the stomach to tell my students about some of them. Which of these would you put into your casebooks, and which stories would you save for the teacher’s manual?
Cooper v. Aaron
The issue in Cooper was whether the Little Rock School District could postpone further compliance with a court-approved desegregation plan. The tumultuous experience with the Little Rock Nine during the 1957-58 academic year involved so much “chaos, bedlam and turmoil” (in the words of the trial court that granted a postponement in Cooper) to justify a cooling-off period. SCOTUS unanimously disagreed. Desegregation must proceed as previously scheduled for 1958-59, and Governor Faubus and the segregationist legislature must get nowhere with their noises about not being bound by Brown v. Board of Education. State obedience to SCOTUS’s interpretations of the US Constitution is “indispensable for the protection of the freedoms guaranteed by our fundamental charter for all of us.” Score one for the federal judiciary.
Except that the desegregation plan did not proceed in the 1958-59 school year. Instead, the legislature authorized the governor to shut down any school if “an efficient educational system cannot be maintained because of integration of the races.” Using this power, the governor shuttered the four Little Rock high schools that were scheduled to desegregate, and the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the order. Garrett v. Faubus, 230 Ark. 445 (1959). The postponement that Cooper refused to authorize occurred anyway.
The end came not through direct enforcement of Cooper, but through the political process. After a year without high schools, Little Rock began to rethink its commitment to segregation now that white families were personally experiencing the costs of maintaining it. In early 1959, an extreme segregationist who had joined the school board was removed from office through a recall election. The Little Rock Chamber of Commerce issued a statement urging the District to reopen its schools because continuing the controversy would be bad for business. The four closed high schools reopened in fall of 1959, and the desegregation plan slowly resumed.
This political process was no doubt affected by Cooper, but teaching Cooper as the end of the story paints a misleading picture. With its surprising subsequent history taught as part of the case, Cooper works better as a demonstration of how complex the constitutional system can be, rather than as a demonstration of the supremacy of judicial interpretation. As a result, Cooper strikes me as a case worth teaching with its subsequent history, or not at all. It may well be worth it for the next few years, since a potentially significant story will be whether Obergefell (and perhaps the Obamacare cases) end up generating political backlash comparable to that following Brown.
Palmore v. Sidoti
By contrast, I have not had the heart to use Palmore v. Sidoti to teach a related lesson about the limits of litigation.
In Palmore, a Florida family court awarded custody of a girl to her father because the mother had entered into an interracial relationship. The Supreme Court found this to be an invalid consideration: even if community prejudice might make a placement with the mother and her new husband stressful for the girl, the law cannot “directly or indirectly” give effect to private biases. (That point is similar to the reasoning in Shelley v. Kraemer, as discussed in a previous post.)
SCOTUS reversed the custody ruling and remanded the matter to the Florida state courts to make a ruling untainted by invalid racial considerations, but by that time, the father had remarried within his race and moved to Texas with the daughter (as allowed by the Florida custody award). The state trial court in Tampa relinquished jurisdiction to Texas, and the decision to close out the Florida action was affirmed on appeal. 472 So.2d 843 (Fl. App. 1985). I have been told that the Texas courts decided in unpublished opinions that it would be in the best interests of the child to remain with the father.
Assume for purposes of discussion that the Texas court considered only questions of family stability and not race. Nonetheless, one may wonder if the same result would have been reached had the Florida courts not originally removed the daughter from the house for constitutionally improper reasons; stability may have favored the mother in that alternate universe. The subsequent history makes Palmore a story about the limitations of individual rights litigation, and not about its glorious aspirations. This could be a valuable discussion, but I have been loath to tell my students how all of a lawyer’s principled hard work may not ultimately benefit the client, who sometimes becomes a martyr with little to show for her Pyrrhic victory.
After Carolene Products, the Filled Milk Act has been remembered in the Con Law canon as the paradigm of a law that has a rational basis. Except that as of today, it officially doesn’t.
As explained in Geoffrey P. Miller, The True Story of Carolene Products, 1987 Sup. Ct. Rev. 397 (1987), the Act was held to be irrational in Milnot Co. v. Richardson, 350 F.Supp. 221 (S.D. Ill. 1972), a case brought by the Carolene Products Company’s successor corporation. The government did not appeal. As a result, filled milk is now readily available online. No semester is complete without me drinking a can of filled milk while my students clutch their stomachs and gasp in fear for my nutritional safety. (Your students will never forget Carolene Products after that bit of show and tell!)
It’s been a hard choice, but I have chosen to keep the demise of the Filled Milk Act a secret from my students—it would cause too much cognitive dissonance. Yet it makes a potentially valuable exploration of how constitutional judgments can change—and whether they should. In Carolene Products (the famous one), Justice Stone said that “the constitutionality of a statute predicated upon the existence of a particular state of facts may be challenged by showing to the court that those facts have ceased to exist.” Evidently they did. The later invalidation of the Filled Milk Act can potentially be an interesting counterpoint to Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which similarly found that changed facts made a statute unconstitutionally irrational.
I’d be interested to know if you dare to share these subsequent histories with your students. And if there are other similar stories we should consider teaching.
Sunday, June 28, 2015
Is the question moot?
Immediately following Obergefell, Nebraska moved in the Eighth Circuit to lift the stay of a district court injunction invalidating the state's ban. In its motion, Nebraska argued that the case is moot because the Attorney General has certified that he will comply with Obergefell and no longer enforce the Nebraska ban. The motion cites to cases (from the Eighth and Seventh Circuits) holding moot challenges to laws that had been declared unconstitutional in a separate case by a controlling court. It also argues that this case is not capable-of-repetition-yet-evading-review, because the state's promise to comply with Obergefell means no one in Nebraska will be denied a license.
This argument seems wrong to me, at least as the state presents it. The government's promise not to enforce a law is generally not sufficient to moot a case (without implicating C/R/Y/E/R). A state can moot a case by repealing a state law, but Nebraska has not done so (and likely will not). The cases Nebraska cites are not on point, because Nebraska's marriage ban has not been declared unconstitutional. The bans in other states have been declared unconstitutional in a decision that, as binding precedent, likely will result in Nebraska's ban being declared unconstitutional. But that is different than a declaration as to Nebraska's law.
I did find one case (not cited by Nebraska), Christian Coalition of Alabama v. Cole (11th Cir. 2004), holding that a constitutional challenge to state judicial canons was moot as a result of precedent from a different state. There, the state judicial ethics commission represented that it would not enforce a canon in light of SCOTUS precedent declaring invalid a similar judicial canon from Minnesota, mooting a challenge because there was no threat of any judicial candidate being sanctioned. This case suggests that Nebraska is correct. Moreover, in asking whether voluntary cessation has mooted the case, courts link the possibility of a renewed enforcement back to standing. Given Obergefell and Nebraska's commitment to abiding by it, a new couple initiating a challenge to its ban likely would be held to lack standing (unless actually denied a license). In the absence of any indication that the plaintiffs in the pending action will be denied a license because of the AG's representation, perhaps the case has indeed become moot.
But this seems a dodge when litigation is already pending and when the district court already has entered an injunction prohibiting enforcement of this particular law. The point of Obergefell is to make clear that the district court decision and injunction both were correct. It seems appropriate to allow that declaration about Nebraska law and that injunction (which, as I have argued, only affects the plaintiff couples anyway) to take effect in light of Obergefell. Otherwise, wouldn't most cases become moot after many GVRs?
Of course, this just may be one more way in which marriage-equality litigation is unique. We have multiple states with identical laws all being challenged at the same time by plaintiffs seeking to engage in identical conduct, with one Supreme Court decision resolving the constitutional of every law in every state as to all possible sets of facts. That is not true of all constitutional litigation.
Saturday, June 27, 2015
More on SSM in Alabama
According to WSJ, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange (who remains under a district court injunction not to enforce the state ban), announced "While I do not agree with the opinion of the majority of the justices in their decision, I acknowledge that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling is now the law of the land." Although the Association of County Commissions yesterday recommended that probate judges wait for further word from either SCoA or Judge Granade, probate judges in many parts of the state declined to listen, including in Birmingham and Mobile. Four counties have refused to issue licenses to same-sex couples and eight are not issuing licenses at all.
Always read beyond the headline
Admit it. How many of you see this headline--Alabama judge: Marriage ruling worse than segregation decision--and thought Roy Moore was talking about Brown?
More of what happens next (Updated)
A follow up to this post and more details:
1) According to this story, Roy Moore is being . . . Roy Moore. He said Obergefell was worse than Plessy; continued to insist that there is no such thing as same-sex marriage in the Constitution; and he "can't say" whether same-sex marriages will happen in the state. This story shows Moore going even further around the bend, now accompanied by his wife, a conservative activist: Moore insists the Court not only lacked authority to issue the ruling, but that Ginsburg and Kagan should have recused, calling into question the validity of the decision. There is a good chance that someone in Alabama is going to be held in contempt.
2) But the same story indicates that Alabama Governor Robert Bentley said he disagrees with the decision, but he would "uphold the law of the nation and this is now the law."
3) I want to say a bit more about the remarks by Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood that "the Supreme Court's decision is not immediately effective in Mississippi until the Fifth Circuit lifts the stay" on a district court injunction. I said this was inartfully stated, but basically right. And it goes to the basic distinction at work here, between precedent and injunction (and the question of its scope).
The Supreme Court's mandate requires district courts in four states to issue injunctions against enforcement of the laws in four states by some defendants as to certain plaintiffs. None of them are in or about Mississippi. There is an injunction barring the Governor and A/G of Mississippi from enforcing that state's ban as to two couples; that injunction is presently stayed, meaning they are not obligated to comply with the injunction and to issue licenses to the two named couples until that stay is lifted. So Hood is correct as a matter of the law of injunction.
But Obergefell is precedent, binding on all courts, even those in Mississippi, that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. So any other couple in the state could have filed a new lawsuit against Hood seeking an injunction prohibiting continued enforcement of Mississippi's ban and compelling issuance of licenses; that court would have to issue the injunction, under the binding authority of a SCOTUS decision. The judge might be swayed by the continuing Fifth Circuit stay, but perhaps not; since the stay was in place pending Obergefell, the district court might feel free to issue a new injunction now that SCOTUS has spoken. So Hood is incorrect as a matter of the law of precedent.
The point is it is not as simple as saying Hood is wrong or issuing dangerous advice, as someone says in this article. Hood is right that the existing injunction does not take effect until the stay is lifted--but that only applies to two plaintiff-couples. He is wrong that SCOTUS precedent is not yet effective in the state, as a matter of influencing a court in a new case.
According to this story, Louisiana Governor (and GOP presidential candidate) Bobby Jindal essentially made the same argument as Hood--no mandate has issued for Louisiana to issue licenses, thus Louisiana officials are under no obligation to issue licenses to same-sex couples. And like Hood, he is right, unless and until a federal judge slaps an injunction on Jindal and others.
Friday, June 26, 2015
What happens next?
I still have not had a chance to read Obergefell, but I wanted to throw together a quick post on what is happening in the decision's immediate aftermath. This Slate piece collects responses from governors and AG's in several states; in ten states, the executives announced that they would immediately implement the decision and begin issuing licenses, which happened almost this morning and afternoon in a few places (includes photos).
Other states appear ready to at least demand that the process run its course. As a commenter on my earlier post noted, Mississippi's A/G, Jim Hood, told circuit clerks not to issue licenses; he said "the Supreme Court's decision is not immediately effective in Mississippi until the Fifth Circuit lifts the stay" on a district court injunction, which Hood suggested might take longer than many expect. This is inartfully stated, but actually correct. The Court's actual mandate is not directly binding on anyone in Mississippi with respect to anyone in Mississippi, who were not parties to the case. Hood overstates it, however, in that any new couple could initiate a new lawsuit against Hood and a circuit clerk and obtain an injunction in light of Obergefell as binding precedent. In any event, it should not take long--the attorney for the plaintiffs has already indicated his plan to file a motion to lift the Fifth Circuit stay, which should be immediately granted.
And what about Alabama, my favorite bastion of procedural nuance? No official word yet. The probate judge in Pike County announced that he would no longer issue marriage licenses to anyone, insisting that the state law empowering probate judges to issue licenses uses the word "may," giving the judge the discretion whether to issue licenses (so long as he does not discriminate). The Alabama Association of County Commissions recommended that probate judges accept applications but delay issuing licenses until resolution of both the Supreme Court mandamus and the stayed federal injunction. I expect the federal plaintiffs to quickly lift ask Judge Granade to lift her stay of the injunction, against a defendant class of all probate judges in favor of a plaintiff class of all same-sex couples; doing so will immediately bind all probate judges to issue licenses on equal terms to all couples. And I imagine someone will ask the Supreme Court of Alabama to vacate its mandamus, since its reasoning has been superseded and cannot stand after Obergefell. And if the court declines, look for someone to ask SCOTUS to stay the injunction, if not to summarily reverse it.
For those of you who are inexplicably here rather than at SCOTUBlog, here is the 103-page opinion in Obergefell. Kennedy for five; dissents from each of the Chief, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito.
Thursday, June 25, 2015
Strange Bedfellows #10: Why So Tense?
This post is part of the Strange Bedfellows series.
A few blockbuster cases remain for SCOTUS to decide this term, and given the current make-up of the Court, this means a high likelihood of fire-breathing dissents. Teachers—and particularly casebook authors—need to decide which lessons, if any, to draw from these dissenting opinions. For myself, I always like to spend some time on at least a few throughout the semester, for what they teach us about the substance of the law and about the art of advocacy.
The substantive lesson comes in large part from considering which cases provoke verbal fireworks and which do not. At the outset, constitutional law is more likely than other legal subjects to provoke heat, and within the Con Law canon some topics provoke more flame wars than others. The flamer is trying to signal that something important is happening, so a suitable question for the class can be “why are they so upset?” This is especially valuable when a case that seemingly involves low stakes provokes what seems like a rhetorical overreaction, as in Caperton v. Massey Coal (2010) (judicial recusal) or BMW of North America v. Gore (1996) (punitive damages).
The advocacy lesson is equally important. The rhetoric in court opinions is worth teaching to law students not as literary criticism for its own sake, but as a model of lawyerly writing. Since we tend not to assign actual briefs to our students written by lawyers, their main exposure to persuasive legal writing takes the form of opinions written by the lawyers on the bench we call judges. When an opinion exhibits a style that deviates from the mean, it can be a good opportunity to discuss whether it was effective, and whether students should pursue a similar tone in their own submissions. My students may just be telling me what I want to hear, but they usually say that bluster turns them off—even though really good bluster can be pretty exciting. Good opinions for this kind of discussion include Justice Scalia’s dissents in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1993) and US v. Virginia (1996), and Justice Blackmun’s self-involved hand-wringing in Casey and DeShaney v. Winnebago County (1989).
As a casebook author, I faced the question is how much to leave in. For Caperton (discussed in an earlier post in this series), I retained almost all of the dissents of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia, largely because both strive for Biblical stature in way that skeptics might consider borderline clownish. To demonstrate that the majority's constitutional rule (mandating judicial recusal when there is an objectively perceivable probability of bias) would be unworkable, Chief Justice Roberts posed a list of forty questions that would need to be resolved in future cases. Think forty days and forty nights, or forty years in the wilderness. Most casebooks seem to edit down the list; you get the point pretty quickly. But I decided to keep the whole thing (four pages worth)—because it is revealing to ask students during class how many of them actually read all forty. The honest ones will admit they skipped it, just as I did the first several times I read the opinion. The overblown Roberts dissent presents a good opportunity to discuss when less is more.
As for Justice Scalia’s Talmud-quoting dissent in Caperton, I kept it largely for his last sentences, which were these: “The relevant question, however, is whether we do more good than harm by seeking to correct [state courts] through expansion of our constitutional mandate in a manner ungoverned by any discernable rule. The answer is obvious.” (emphasis added) Anytime somebody tells you the answer to a contested legal question is obvious, or that a question answers itself (as in the inexplicable Goesaert v. Cleary (1948), discussed in an earlier post), it’s time to reach for your revolver.
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Policing False Speech in Political Campaigns
I'm working on the update memo for my Mass Media Law casebook while simultaneously working on a new edition, which means I'm coming across some interesting cases I missed when they came out. One of these is Eighth Circuit's decision in 281 Care Committee et. al. v. Arneson, No. 13-1229 (Feb. 13, 2014), which strikes down a Minnesota law attempting to assign administrative law judges and county attorneys the job of policing the truth of statements partisans make for or against ballot initiatives. Arneson involved a challenge by advocacy organizations to the constitutionality of a Minnesota law making it a gross misdemeanor for a person to prepare or publish a political advertisement or campaign materials supporting or criticizing “a ballot question, that is false, and that the person knows is false or communicates to others with reckless disregard of whether it is false.” Minn.Stat. sec.211B.06, subd. 1. Under the statute, any person can trigger an investigation by an administrative law judge to determine whether probable cause supports the complaint. Upon such a finding, the ALJ may refer the case to a panel of three ALJs for further determination or may refer the matter to a county attorney to prosecute.
A district court held that the statute served a compelling interest in preserving fair elections and preventing frauds on the electorate. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed. The Eighth Circuit held that the advocacy organizations had standing to challenge the statute and that the statute was a content-based regulation of political speech that violated the First Amendment. The district court, citing the plurality and concurrences in United States v. Alvarez (striking down the Stolen Valor Act), determined that the appropriate constitutional standard was intermediate scrutiny, but the Eighth Circuit distinguished Alvarez because it did not involve core political speech; moreover, the court noted that the false assertion criminalized by the Stolen Valor Act--that one received a military honor one did not receive--is verifiable objectively. In contrast, the Minnesota law targeted "false" political speech that was likely to include opinion or other unverifiable political speech. The court therefore concluded that strict scrutiny was the appropriate standard to judge the Minnesota law.
Applying strict scrutiny the court determined that, regardless of whether Minnesota’s interests in passing the statute were compelling, the statute was neither necessary nor narrowly tailored but instead was “simultaneously overbroad and underinclusive, and [was] not the least restrictive means of achieving any stated goal.” The court bolstered this conclusion by observing that the State had failed to show “an actual, serious threat of individuals disseminating knowingly false statements concerning ballot initiatives.” Furthermore, and more central to the court’s analysis, was its determination that the statute “tends to perpetuate the very fraud it is allegedly designed to prohibit.” As the court cannily deduced, the Minnesota statute lends itself to use by political adversaries seeking to undermine the message of their opponents. Filing a complaint against one’s opponent can be used as a political tool to undermine the opponent’s message and force the opponent to “’to devote time, resources, and energy defending themselves.’” All of these strategic political goals can be accomplished by a complainant whether or not his or her complaint is meritorious. The filing of the complaint itself becomes a news item and casts doubt on the credibility of the speaker, and the investigation takes up time and money even if the investigation ultimately terminates in one’s favor.In light of this political reality, the court concluded that the mens rea requirement in the statute was not enough to render it constitutional. Most of the statute's chilling effect on political speech occurred because any person can file a complaint under the statute at any time: “[M]ost cynically, many might legitimately fear that no matter what they say, an opponent will utilize [the statute] to simply tie them up in litigation and smear their name or position on a particular matter, even if the speaker never had the intent required to render him liable.”
The court further explained that the statute’s exemption for news media made its unconstitutionality all the more apparent. Exempting the media from liability for false statements while targeting advocacy groups did not advance the state’s interests in policing election fraud. The underinclusiveness of the statute undermined the state’s claims that its speech restrictions were necessary to achieve its stated aims.
Ultimately, the court’s decision to strike down the statute stemmed from both its understanding of the political process and its embrace of the First Amendment ideal of the marketplace of ideas. Counterspeech, not criminalization, is the remedy that the US Supreme Court’s decisions interpreting the First Amendment precribe for false speech during political campaigns. Counterspeech is clearly a less restrictive alternative than criminalization, and “[t]he citizenry, not the government, should be the monitor of falseness in the political arena.”
The court's opinion thus relied on two central tenets (some would call them myths) of First Amendment jurisprudence. As I've previously described these tenets in an article called Nobody's Fools: The Rational Audience as First Amendment Ideal: "[t]he first is that audiences are capable of rationally assessing the truth, quality, and credibility of core speech. The second is that more speech is generally preferable to less." The problem, of course, is that these tenets, or assumptions, may be demonstrably wrong. False speech in political campaigns may bamboozle the electorate, if they're even paying attention. Nonetheless, the court in Arneson reached the right decision based on both Supreme Court precedent and democratic theory. An audience that is incapable of critically analyzing campaign speech is also incapable of participating in political discourse or engaging in democratic self-governance, and to abandon the ideal of the rational audience for political speech is to abandon the ideal of democracy. This is not (yet) something we're prepared to do.
Strange Bedfellows #9: The Frame Game
This post is part of the Strange Bedfellows series.
The Con Law canon contains many opportunities to teach how the choice of frame greatly can affect the outcome of a case. In many cases, an advocate’s first and most important task is to convince the judge properly fill in the blank in the following sentence: “This is a case about ____.”
My favorite example is Johnson v California (2005), where a prisoner objected to a state department of corrections policy to house inmates with cellmates of the same race. The majority filled in the blank by concluding that “This is a case about race,” which meant that strict scrutiny applied. The dissenters filled in the blank by concluding that “This is a case about prisons,” which meant that a standard much more deferential to governmental decisions would apply. Nothing in existing law forced the court to choose one frame or the other, making Johnson a great opportunity to explore methods of persuasion with students. What would you say to convince the judge to use your frame instead of your opponent's?
The frame game inevitably reveals itself in many canonical substantive due process cases, but it can also be woven into discussions of cases arising under many different doctrines.
Framing can be a battleground in equal protection cases where the court must decide which groups to compare against each other. Goesaert v. Cleary, 335 U.S. 464 (1948), sometimes taught as an example of the bad old days, involved a frame that strikes most modern students as bizarre. A Michigan statute would grant bartender’s licenses to two kinds of applicants: (a) a man or (b) a woman who is “the wife or daughter of the male owner” of a tavern.* For Justice Frankfurter, writing for the majority, the statute distinguished between two classes of women: those who are close relatives of bar owners and those who are not. The legal question was whether Michigan was “play[ing] favorites among women without rhyme or reasons.” Frankfurter tipped his hand that his choice of frame controlled the outcome, saying: “To ask whether [the state may distinguish] wives and daughters of owners of liquor places and wives and daughters of nonowners, is one of those rare instances where to state the question is in effect to answer it.” Indeed. The dissent asked a different question: could the state justify discrimination “between male and female owners of liquor establishments?” The dissenters answered that question (in the negative) in two quick paragraphs. Other, even crazier, frames are possible on the Goesaert facts. The statute discriminated against corporations who own taverns, because they are not "male owners" capable of having a "wife" or a "daughter." The state is facilitating cheaper labor for certain sole proprietors, but owners who exercise their Citizens United right to assemble in the corporate form must hire from a slightly smaller and hence more expensive all-male labor pool.
* (As noted in an earlier post, alcohol pops up Con Law teaching more often than one might expect.)
All disparate impact cases are a variation on the frame game. Did the law in Geduldig v. Aiello (1974) classify along the lines of male v. female or, as the majority thought, “pregnant women and non-pregnant persons?” Did the law in Personnel Administrator v. Feeney (1978) classify between veterans and non-veterans, or between men and women?
The frame game is inescapable in substantive due process cases where the task is to define the relevant unenumerated right. Did the terminally ill plaintiffs in Washington v. Glucksberg (1997) seek to enforce “a right to commit suicide which itself includes a right to assistance in doing so” or “the right to a humane death” or “freedom from pain and indignity”? Did the biological father in Michael H. v. Gerald D. (1989) seek “parenthood” or “parental rights [of] the natural father of a child conceived within, and born into, an extant marital union [to which he is not a party]?” And as we await a result in Obergefell v. Hodges, one can ask whether the couple in Loving v. Virginia (1967) sought the right to enter into “marriage” or into “interracial marriage.”
Finally, one may consider an often explicit choice among legal frames, with the most common nominees in individual rights cases being freedom and equality. This is likely to arise in Obergefell, which is a case about the freedom to marry and about equality among marriages. While abortion rights were framed as a matter of freedom of reproductive choice in Roe v. Wade (1973), pro-choice advocates also argue that legal abortion is necessary for women to have the same options as men. In many such cases, the frames would not necessarily generate opposite answers; this is seen in an earlier post about jury selection cases, where the right of a juror to be seated correlates with the right of the defendant to a representative jury. In these situations, students can develop the lawyering skill of choosing which frame to emphasize.