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
Two thoughts on Paul's post about the prose in Justice Kennedy's Obergefell opinion:
1) If you had asked me as of 9:57 a.m. Friday, I would have predicted the vote would be 6-3, with the Chief joining the majority. And at least part of the reason I thought he would join the majority was to keep the opinion away from Kennedy--either by writing it himself or giving it to Justice Ginsburg--so as to get a narrower, less flowery, clearer, likely more Equal Protection focus.
2) Judge Posner's opinion, while a blast to read (at least if you agree with his conclusions), was criticized in some circles as similarly not placing itself within the ordinary (he uses "conventional") doctrinal framework. He did not commit to a standard of review, not resolving the fundamental rights questions, using cost-benefit balancing analysis that was neither heightened nor strict scrutiny, while insisting that the difference was semantic more than substantive. Posner's opinion is noteworthy for the way it tears apart (and makes fun of) the state's arguments in support of SSM bans. But Posner departs from the typical judicial style as much as Kennedy does.
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."
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.
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.
Thursday, June 25, 2015
“An Antidemocratic and Largely Foreign Conspiracy”
In my last post, which considered whether abolitionist sentiment should matter to the Justices’ decision-making in Glossip, I noted that part of that sentiment (a good deal of it, actually) is coming from nation-states that have long been abolitionist. Here I’ll expand on that theme, and connect it up with the title of my post, which unfortunately comes from one of the amicus briefs in Glossip.
As most people know, Europe is almost entirely abolitionist (indeed, in all of Europe, only Belarus still has the death penalty, and it’s so close to Moscow that it’s hard to think of it as Europe). And Europe isn’t abolitionist-light—it’s as committed to abolitionism as the United States is to its death penalty. Abolishing the death penalty is a requirement for EU membership, and in 1998, the EU made worldwide abolition a centerpiece of its human rights agenda, declaring that it would “work towards universal abolition of the death penalty as a strongly held policy view agreed by all EU member states.”
These guys are not fooling around. It was the EU that sponsored UN Resolution 62/149, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007, which declared that “the death penalty undermines human dignity” and called for all nation-states to institute a moratorium as a first step towards abolition. The vote was 104 nations in favor, 54 against, with the United States leading the dissenters.
The point here is that European abolitionism has been around for a long time, a lot longer than the current snafu over lethal injection drugs, and these countries are Dixie Chicks serious about abolishing the death penalty worldwide. So when the market for thiopental experienced upstream supply problems, and when thiopental’s producer (Hospira) moved its production plant from North Carolina to Italy for reasons that had nothing to do with any of this, is it any wonder that Italy, then Great Britain, and then the EU as a whole, saw an opportunity, and seized it, to put the damper on death penalty drugs?
For decades, EU governments had tried, and largely come up short, to influence the United States with their anti-death penalty views. To borrow a line from my paper with Jim Gibson, it turns out that the best way for European governments to export their abolitionist norms was to stop exporting their drugs.
What’s wrong with that?
That brings me to the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation’s amicus brief in Glossip. I originally wanted to do the Harry Potter “It that must not be named” thing—my attempt at that was yesterday’s post. But that approach has proven unsatisfactory. I’ve got to name it, because it named me, or rather the paper I just co-authored—all under the heading “The United States must not allow its justice to be obstructed by an antidemocratic and largely foreign conspiracy.” Wait, what?
That’s right, that section of the brief cites the paper, and quotes it, to show that foreign governments are “meddling” in our business—our execution business, which it alleges is of “no legitimate concern of European governments.”
I dissent. We are a sovereign state and so yes, we can execute if we please. If we can’t get the drugs to inject someone to death, we can hang them. Or shoot them. Or electrocute or gas them. We can double-down on death, no matter what the EU does.
But those European countries are sovereign states too, and they aren’t “meddling” in our affairs when they make their own decisions in response to ours.
The EU doesn’t have to sell us its drugs. We’re not entitled to them. It’s a free country (or countries, I suppose). If European countries, or nation-states anywhere else, want to use export controls to express their moral disapprobation of the death penalty, they can do that—just like we’ve done it countless times when other countries do things we find morally repugnant.
The CJLF amicus brief states in a footnote when citing the paper that “Amicus does not endorse the views of the authors, who seem to think that European government meddling in American criminal justice policy is a good thing.”
For the record, we don’t take a stand on whether these developments are a good thing, or a bad thing; they’re just a thing. I can say, however, that I don’t endorse the views of amicus any more than it endorses mine.
The US is sovereign, but no more sovereign than other nation states. Rather than fuming about foreigners meddling, we’d be better served to think about execution methods that don’t require the cooperation of nations that don’t want us to execute.
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
In Anticipation of Glossip
I’m excited. Not like Harry Potter World excited, but excited in that geeky, purely academic way that sometimes feels inappropriate in the death penalty context. The Supreme Court will issue its ruling in Glossip any day now, and certainly within the next 7 days. What will the Justices do?
I posted a comment earlier titled why is Glossip hard? so yeah, you could say I have a point of view. In this post, I’ll pick up where I left off, and think a bit more about what seems to be making this easy case hard, at least for the Court’s conservatives: abolitionist sentiment.
The reason the Court is stuck considering the constitutionality of midazolam in lethal injection protocols is that the states are stuck using it. More effective drugs—sodium thiopental, pentobarbital (of the uncompounded variety), and propofol—have all been taken off the market, or at least out of executioners’ hands, by the companies that make the drugs.
Why? In part it’s because abolitionists have played the ‘name and shame’ game, calling out drug companies whose mottos include “advancing wellness” for selling their drugs to put people to death. And in part it’s because European governments, which have long been abolitionist, have tightened their export controls. So yeah, it’s fair to say abolition sentiment of one variety or another is behind the current shortage of death dealing drugs.
That led Justice Scalia to blame the “abolitionist movement” for the mess lethal injection is in nowadays, and for Justice Alito to ask whether it was “appropriate for the judiciary to countenance what amounts to a guerrilla war against the death penalty.” For the condemned, maybe those were lost votes anyway, but then Kennedy asked The Question: “What bearing, if any, should be put on the fact that there is a method, but that’s not available because of opposition to the death penalty?”
Now we’ve got everyone’s attention.
George Will says the success of abolitionists in convincing drug companies not to play merchants of death, and of European governments in enforcing their export controls, is of no moment. “Public agitation against capital punishment is not relevant to judicial reasoning,” he says, “and it is not the judiciary’s business to worry that a ruling might seem to ‘countenance’ this or that social advocacy.”
It’s worth noting that before abolitionists stumbled upon the lethal injection drug supply as a way to thwart executions, there was a shortage in the raw ingredients necessary to make those drugs. Indeed that and some other random events are what started the scramble for death drugs in the first place (as my colleague Jim Gibson and I detail in a recent article). So what if the coveted lethal injection drugs were unavailable because of problems in the upstream supply rather than downstream distribution?
I’m left wondering why it matters why the traditional drug protocol is unavailable; indeed, why abolitionist sentiment is in this at all. The ‘naming and shaming’ on the domestic side is free speech, and the export controls on the international side are a sovereign state’s prerogative (and one we’ve used to express our moral disapprobation numerous times).
I’m with George on this one, the reason for the shortage shouldn’t matter.
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.
Monday, June 22, 2015
Walker meets Wooley
In last week's Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans, SCOTUS held that specialty license plates constitute government speech, meaning the state can exclude or include whatever groups or messages it wishes, regardless of how viewpoint discriminatory it is being. This basically resolves controversies currently pending in several states over pro-choice/anti-choice license plates--the state can do what it wants. It can allow for both messages, exclude both messages (albeit for different reasons than the Second Circuit relied on in upholding New York's blanket exclusion of messages relating to controversial political subjects, such as abortion), or exclude one and include the other. The Fourth Circuit is currently considering a challenge to North Carolina's program, which offers a "Choose Life" plate but rejected a plate in support of reproductive freedom. Walker ends that dispute and requires that the state's program be upheld The Fourth Circuit last year held invalidated North Carolina's program allowing for a "Choose Life" plate but not a corresponding plate in favor of reproductive freedom; a cert petition is pending.
So is there any way for a person in North Carolina to use a license plate to display a message in support of reproductive rights when the state refuses to allow that specialty plate? How about this: Pay for the "Choose Life" plate, then make a conspicuous show of placing tape or something else to cover the anti-choice logo. The First Amendment allows a driver to cover the state-speech motto on the plate, as the state cannot compel a driver to serve as a "'mobile billboard'" for the State's ideological message." Under Walker, "Choose Life" is the state's ideological message for Wooley purposes, which a driver cannot be compelled to display. The obvious way not to display the state's message is to not purchase the "Choose Life" plate, which the state does not compel (unlike New Hampshire's general "Live Free or Die" plate). On the other hand, if the state did compel that as its sole license plate, a person unquestionably could cover the logo.
It follows that First Amendment should also protect a person who combines those options: Pay the extra money for the specialty plate specifically so she can cover the state's message.* Covering a state-sponsored message with which a person disagrees involves a protected message that is different from declining to purchase and display that message in the first instance. Additional meaning flows from the person not just counter-speaking to the state message, but using the state message as the vehicle for the counter-speech. For a stark comparison, an individual is not obligated to purchase or display an American flag, although she may choose to purchase it so she can set it on fire. Each presents a different message that a speaker is entitled to put forward. Given that difference, the state should not be able to successfully argue that the driver lost her right to cover the slogan, a la Wooley, because she willingly paid extra for the plate with that slogan.
[*] There is a separate question of whether anyone would want to do this. My understanding is that in some states, a portion of the money for some specialty plates goes to the cause reflected on the plate. So a supporter of reproductive freedom will not buy the "Choose Life" plate, even to make the statement of covering the logo, if the money is going to anti-choice causes.
Thursday, June 18, 2015
Oklahoma’s Latest Invention: Execution by Nitrogen Gas
In 1977, Oklahoma started a national trend when it adopted lethal injection as a new method of execution. This year, maybe it will do the same in adopting death by “nitrogen hypoxia” as a statutorily authorized alternative to lethal injection.
Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallon said she signed the bill to give the state “another death penalty option,” and if there’s one thing the state of Oklahoma likes about its death penalty (besides secrecy), it’s options. Whereas most death penalty states have one lethal injection protocol, maybe two, Oklahoma has five. And whereas most states have one method of execution, maybe two, Oklahoma has four. If for some reason lethal injection and nitrogen gas don’t work out, the state has the electric chair and firing squad also waiting in the wings. Little wonder Oklahoma has in the last several years edged out Virginia as the second most executing state since the revival of the death penalty in 1976—it’s nothing if not committed to the death penalty.
Oklahoma’s statute doesn’t say exactly how death by nitrogen hypoxia will be carried out, and it’s brand new so we’re all just guessing here, but the assumption appears to be that some sort of mask would be affixed to the condemned inmate’s head, which would then be used to pump in pure nitrogen. Nitrogen is already in the air we breathe so it’s not inherently toxic; it’s the lack of oxygen that does a person in, and that’s apparently painless. “You just sit there and a few minutes later, you’re dead,” the bill’s sponsor said. Rather than imposing death, nitrogen hypoxia “withholds life.” Sounds kinda brilliant when you put it that way.
But there’s always a hitch. Execution by nitrogen hypoxia is a one-off of Jack Kevorkian’s “exit bags” and similar techniques advocated by right-to-die advocacy groups. The problem is that its only use has been on people who wanted to die, so they weren’t trying to break the seal, or refusing to breathe, or doing whatever else one might do to gum up the works. “It requires the total cooperation of the person who is dying,” one euthanasia spokesman said of the process.
The other difference—and maybe this doesn’t matter—is that those groups use helium rather than nitrogen to get the job done, and that was off the table from the start. Indeed, even with nitrogen as the designated gas, some legislators worried that death by hypoxia would be accompanied by a brief moment of euphoria rather than pain.
In the end, we really don’t know how all this will work out, which I suppose is the case with most any innovation in execution methods. “I assume somebody must have done some research,” one state senator said—and that’s true, to an extent.
What data we have on forced inhalation of pure nitrogen comes from veterinary science, and in that experiment, the cats and dogs howled and convulsed. The American Veterinary Medical Association has taken the position that nitrogen asphyxiation is not appropriate for animal euthanasia, but that doesn’t seem to matter much. The AVMA has said the same thing about using paralytics during animal euthanasia by lethal injection, and we’ve done that to humans for decades.
All that brings me back to what the Oklahoma legislator who wrote the bill said about nitrogen hypoxia—“It’s foolproof.” I say maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. But if we think know the answer to that on the front side, we’re fooling ourselves.
Wednesday, June 17, 2015
If Not Lethal Injection, Then What?
With lethal injection on its heels (as a practical matter, maybe constitutional matter too), one question that’s on many a mind is—if not lethal injection, then what?
The electric chair is pretty gruesome—you’re stuck with the sound and smell of burning flesh and it occasionally catches the condemned person’s head on fire.
Hanging is pretty hard to get right—it’s supposed to kill by breaking the condemned person’s neck, but if the measurements are off (which is often the case), the person ends up either slowly strangling to death or getting decapitated.
And the gas chamber is reminiscent of Nazi death camps and pretty grisly in its own right—the cyanide pumped into the chamber causes the condemned to die by asphyxiation, but not before a significant amount of gasping, drooling, and retching first. Arizona got rid of its gas chamber in 1992 when an execution made the state attorney general vomit and the warden threaten to resign if he ever had to use it again. In 1999, the Ninth Circuit declared it a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishments” clause.
That leaves the guillotine (not a chance), the firing squad, and Oklahoma’s newest innovation: death by nitrogen gas. Today I’ll consider the firing squad. Tomorrow, nitrogen gas.
My thoughts on the firing squad bring me back to Chief Judge Alex Kozinski’s dissent from the denial of a rehearing en banc in Wood v. Ryan. I quoted part of that dissent in a post last week, here’s the rest:
If some states and the federal government wish to continue carrying out the death penalty, they must turn away from this misguided path and return to more primitive—and foolproof—methods of execution. . . . The firing squad strikes me as the most promising. Eight or ten large-caliber rifle bullets fired at close range can inflict massive damage, causing instant death every time. There are plenty of people employed by the state who can pull the trigger and have the training to aim true. The weapons and ammunition are bought by the state in massive quantities for law enforcement purposes, so it would be impossible to interdict the supply. And nobody can argue that the weapons are put to a purpose for which they were not intended: firearms have no purpose other than destroying their targets. Sure, firing squads can be messy, but if we are willing to carry out executions, we should not shield ourselves from the reality that we are shedding human blood. If we, as a society, cannot stomach the splatter from an execution carried out by firing squad, then we shouldn’t be carrying out executions at all.
Again, I think Kozinski is on to something here. Execution by firing squad is fast (around 15 seconds as opposed to lethal injection’s 3-10 minutes, and that’s if done right). It’s effective (or at least less subject to mishaps than any other execution method—let’s not forget Wallace Wilkerson of 1878’s Wilkerson v. Utah, who cried, “My God! My God! They missed!” and then bled to death for nearly 30 minutes from shots in the arm and torso rather than heart). And it’s out in the open; no question here about what the state is doing in our name.
Two additional observations merit mention (along with a shout out to the Richmond Law student who recently published a comment advocating the firing squad in Virginia—I had nothing to do with it, by the way).
First, execution by firing squad scratches that retribution itch. This is why Robert Blecker likes it—you want blood, you’ve got it.
Second, execution has the unique feature of allowing executioners to absolve themselves from responsibility for the execution. One of them will fire a blank, and none of them knows who the non-shooter will be. Blecker doesn’t much like this aspect, but one could see how executioners might—and the states that employ them too.
Death by firing squad makes sense in so many ways. So why are we hesitant to go there? My only guess is our delicate palate, but that brings me back to Kozinski’s point. If we truly can’t handle quick, easy, low-risk executions that show us what executions are, maybe we shouldn’t be doing them.
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Veep does the Constitution
Veep is a hilarious show, described by one former Obama adviser as the most accurate depiction of Washington and definitely the most hilariously profane (reflecting the sensibilities of creator, and departing showrunner, Armando Iannucci). The season finale, which aired on Sunday, takes place on Election Night and ends on a constitutional cliffhanger related to presidential elections and presidential succession, a common theme for political TV shows.
More (with spoilers) after the jump.
The election ends in a 269-269 Electoral College tie,* sending everyone scrambling to figure out, and discuss in expository dialogue, what happens; it became a mini Con Law lecture, although there did not seem to be a practicing lawyer in the room. The show explains that the House selects the President, voting by state delegation, and the Senate selects the Vice President, voting as a body of the whole; they get that part right. But then the narrative reveals uncertainty over numerous close House races** and over what the make-up of the House will be, with everyone raising the possibility of a tie in the House. What happens then? The show posits that the Vice President becomes President. This sets-up the dramatic twist that Meyer's running mate, Tom James (who is seemingly more popular and more competent than Meyer***), will "backdoor" his way into the top spot; one of the last beats in the episode has James asking Meyer to serve as his VP.
[*] This allows for a nice riff about the stupidity of having an even number of electors--blame the Twenty-third Amendment. The tie also results from a bizarre electoral map for current politics. Selina Meyer, whose party is unnamed but who seems to be a Democrat, wins Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin, but loses Minnesota and Ohio.
[**] Also unlikely in current politics, given gerrymandering practices creating vast numbers of "safe" seats.
[***] And ambitious. Earlier in the episode, James insists that, in addition to serving as VP, he wants to be Secretary of the Treasury. I do not believe there is a constitutional bar to the VP holding a cabinet position, although I cannot see the Senate going for it.
That last part seems both constitutionally wrong and factually unlikely, at least as presented. So the mini Con Law lecture did not quite get it right.
First, whatever the uncertainty of the makeup of the next House,the possibility that twenty-five state delegations will be controlled by one party and twenty-five controlled by the other seems like an implausible logical leap. It would be a fun narrative twist to actually show happening; it just seemed a strange place for Meyer's aides to go in predicting right then. Second, and related, why does nobody consider the possibility of a tie in the Senate (historically, a more likely occurrence) or even of James losing in the Senate (if the opposing party has a majority). It is not discussed, even to explain away that the Senate make-up is not unknown and that the Meyer/James party will control the Senate.
Third, under the Twelfth Amendment, if the House has not yet chosen a President by the appointed date (as further amended, January 20), "the Vice President shall act as President, as in the case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President." The Twentieth Amendment further provides that "[i]f a President shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term, or if the President elect shall have failed to qualify, then the Vice President elect shall act as President until a President shall have qualified." In other words, contrary to what the show says, James would be Acting President, not President; he would not enjoy an inauguration, he would not be listed in the line of Presidents, and he certainly would not be able to appoint a Vice President.
He also would act as President only until "a President shall have qualified," that is, until the House is finally able to resolve any stalemate and pick the President. This presents the fourth problem with the show's constitutional narrative--the assumption that there would be one House vote, it would end in a tie, and that would be the end of the discussion. But the House may (and will) take multiple votes and engage in a lot of politics to resolve the question--it took 36 ballots and political pressure from Alexander Hamilton for the House to elect Jefferson over Burr in 1801. So even if the initial vote were tied (again, unlikely), the House likely would not stop at a tie and leave an elected VP to serve four years as acting President; the House would feel public and political pressure to continue negotiating and holding votes until someone is elected President from between the two**** top-of-the-ticket candidates for whom the public had just cast millions of votes.
[****] The Twelfth Amendment provides that the House may consider up to the top three Electoral College vote-getters, unnecessary here, since no third-party candidate received College votes. The show might have tried to really go all the way on E/C confusion by throwing in a third candidate who won two three-elector states (one from each candidate), producing a tie without a possible majority.
None of which is to dampen my enthusiasm for the show. But if the writers are deliberately showing a constitutional possibility, I just want them to get the small details right (especially when those details involve legal issues I am interested in).
Is Criticism of Lethal Injection Just a Front For Opposing the Death Penalty?
I had planned to follow last week’s post on lethal injection with a post about the firing squad as a method of execution. But I’m saving that for tomorrow in light of the numerous emails and conversations that have come my way about the relationship between one’s position on lethal injection and one’s position on the death penalty itself. Is criticism of lethal injection just a front for criticizing the death penalty?
My own experience over the past week suggests that most people think the answer is yes—if you have a problem with lethal injection, it’s because you must have a problem with capital punishment, so let’s be real about where the façade actually lies.
But the two don’t necessarily, or even logically, go together. There are plenty of people who support the death penalty on retributivist grounds (indeed, retribution is by far the most popular reason people support the death penalty today) who have a problem with lethal injection for the very reasons I mentioned in last week’s post. Law Professor Robert Blecker, an outspoken retributivist, is a prime example. Here’s what he had to say:
Lethal injection conflates punishment with medicine. The condemned dies in a gurney, wrapped in white sheets with an IV in his veins, surrounded by his closest kin, monitored by sophisticated medical devices. Haphazardly conceived and hastily designed, lethal injection appears, feels, and seems medical, although its sole purpose is to kill.
Witnessing an execution in Florida, I shuddered. It felt too much like a hospital or hospice. We almost never look to medicine to tell us whom to execute. Medicine should no more tell us how. How we kill those we rightly detest should in no way resemble how we end the suffering of those we love.
Others who support capital punishment might rightly oppose lethal injection for the endless litigation, delay, and bad press it has brought the administration of the death penalty in the United States.
On the flip side, some abolitionists support lethal injection under the theory that at least when done right, this method of execution inflicts the least amount of pain upon the condemned, and until the death penalty is abolished, that’s about the best they can do. Others in this camp like what lethal injection has done for the abolitionist cause—allowed drug companies to gum up the works, brought renewed salience to botched executions, and mobilized the medical profession to take a stand its involvement in the process.
Of course, abolitionists can also oppose lethal injection, just as death penalty advocates can support it. Years ago, one such abolitionist said this in making the point, “The worst sin of all is to do well that which should not be done at all.”
Given the recent litigation in Glossip v. Gross, I’m not so sure the shoe fits anymore, if it ever did. But it’s an open—and quite separate—question as to whether that’s so because lethal injection doesn’t “do well” in executing the condemned, or because executing the condemned is something we shouldn’t be doing at all.
Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Is Lethal Injection About Us or Them?
I’ve been thinking a bit lately about lethal injection, about the ways it is problematic regardless of what the Supreme Court holds in Glossip. I’m at the very early stages of a work-in-progress on the topic, and one of the things I’ve been quite drawn to is a passage from Chief Judge Alex Kozinski’s dissent from the denial of a rehearing en banc in Wood v. Ryan.
Here’s what he wrote:
Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful—like something any one of us might experience in our final moments. . . . But executions are, in fact, nothing like that. They are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should it. If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.
It’s worth noting that Judge Kozinski supports the death penalty (his essay “Tinkering with Death” presents a thoughtful and remarkably personal account of his views on the subject) so his position here can’t be written off as just another abolitionist trying to muck things up. The pain inflicted on victims and their families is tremendous, he says, and society has a moral right to respond accordingly. The point here is that we should at least be honest about what the death penalty is: brutality for brutality. And if we’re not willing to accept that, we shouldn’t be doing it.
So here’s my question: is lethal injection about us or is it about them? That is, is it about masking the brutality of executions so we don’t have to deal with the violence inherent in taking another life? Or is it about providing the condemned with a relatively painless death, something they don’t deserve (at least by the measure of their own crimes) but can expect from a civilized society?
Perhaps it’s both, but the history of lethal injection suggests it’s a lot about us. Oklahoma was the first state to adopt lethal injection, and its legislators did not ask how do we euthanize pets, how does physician-assisted suicide work, how can we do this as pain free as possible. It was 1977, and the Supreme Court had just brought back the death penalty the year before in Gregg v. Arizona, after having abolished it in Furman v. Georgia in 1972. Legislators worried that the American public wouldn’t have the stomach for executions the old fashioned way—hanging, electrocution, gas (firing squad made a famous appearance in 1977 but never really got off the ground). They needed something that wouldn’t jar the public, something that looked much more peaceful, civilized. The answer was what would become the standard 3-drug lethal injection protocol.
I’ve been chewing on the democratic accountability point Kozinski makes at the end of the above passage: “If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.” We should own it, and that means we shouldn’t be executing in a way that people associate with putting down a beloved pet. It seems to me he’s on to something here.
But how far do you want to take this? one of my colleagues asked. I mean, one could go all Hunger Games on this thing, and make people watch executions on a huge screen. The more blood the better.
That’s not what I have in mind, but there is something to recognizing that the death penalty is inherently violent. It has to be; it’s extinguishing life before the body would naturally have it end. And there is something to recognizing that lethal injection hides that fact, and indeed was designed for the very purpose of hiding that from us to make it more palatable.
Friday, June 05, 2015
Despite Nebraska’s repeal of its death penalty last week, Governor Pete Ricketts has vowed to execute the 10 inmates now on death row. Here’s the argument:
Nebraska’s repeal legislation states “It is the intent of the Legislature that in any criminal proceeding in which the death penalty has been imposed but not carried out prior to the effective date of this act, such penalty shall be changed to life imprisonment.”
The state AG’s office says the provision violates the state constitution, which gives the Board of Pardons exclusive power to change final sentences.
The repeal law’s defenders say it does not change the actual sentence of death, but rather removes the state’s ability to carry it out, just like repeal legislation in other states. And as for the intent provision, well that’s just an intent provision; it doesn’t carry the force of law.
In my mind, the issue is purely academic (which, I’m an academic, so fine by me) because Nebraska will never get the drugs to execute anyway (yesterday’s post).
But this one has me scratching my head. Other than the intent provision, the bill effectuates the repeal by simply amending the classes of felonies from 9 to 8 and striking out the death penalty as the highest class one felony. So there’s that change, and the intent provision. That’s it.
On the one hand, I think the constitutional claim has legs—it’s one thing to pass repeal legislation, and quite another to legislatively change someone's sentence. And the intent provision in the statute is the clearest indication of what the statute is intended to do, change the sentence.
On the other hand, the only operative language in the amendment is just removing the death penalty as the highest penalty, and functionally, that does change death sentences to life, which is clearly what intent statute, although perhaps inartfully drafted, is trying to communicate. Besides, once Nebraska repealed its death penalty, it has no need to literally change existing death sentences to life, because as a practical matter those death sentences cannot be carried out anyway.
Recognizing that, a literal reading of the intent provision can’t be the legislature’s intent, which is itself a sad state of affairs.
The return of summary adjudication?
For a long time, SCOTUS had a great deal of mandatory jurisdiction. Prior to 1976, actions to enjoin enforcement of constitutionally defective federal and state laws were heard by three-judge district courts with direct and mandatory review by SCOTUS. Prior to 1988, SCOTUS had appellate (mandatory) jurisdiction over state court judgments that invalidated federal statutes or upheld state statutes in the face of federal (usually constitutional) challenge. This obviously played some role (how much is an empirical question that I would like to explore someday) in the Court's docket being significantly larger from the '60s through the mid-'80s. One way the Court handled that larger docket was through summary and memorandum dispositions (both to affirm and to reverse) of some of these mandatory-jurisdiction cases (again, the numbers are for future exploration).
For now, I am wondering whether the Court's seemingly increasing practice of summary grant-and-reverse decisions--part of what Will Baude described as the Court's Shadow Docket and which Richard further discussed--reflects a return to this practice. Monday's decision in Taylor v. Burke (which I discussed Wednesday) is the latest example of the practice, which is especially prominent in certain types of cases (notably § 1983/qualified immunity and habeas) involving certain types of outcomes (predominantly, although not always, where the government/officer lost in the lower court). As before, summary procedures allow the Court to speak to and resolve a greater number of cases, even if not in the fullest fashion.
The difference is that the earlier practice was (at least arguably) necessary to handle the heavier caseload that Congress had imposed on the Court; the Justices could not address so many cases if they had to give plenary review to each of them. On the other hand, necessity does not dictate the current practice--the Court is not doing this because it has no other way to handle these cases or because it would be unduly burdened by giving plenary review to more cases. Instead, it reflects the Justices' strategic choice to reach more cases and issues, often towards a particular substantive end, but without expressly acknowledging an expansion of its jurisdiction or its certiorari practices and without, as Baude puts it, their "otherwise high standards of transparency and legal craft."
Thursday, June 04, 2015
Nebraska’s Governor said he did (or at least promised they were on the way) while trying to fend off the state’s repeal of the death penalty last week. For those who missed this nail-biter, Nebraska’s unicameral legislature had voted to repeal the death penalty, the governor had vetoed the repeal measure, and the legislature was gearing up to override the veto (they needed 30 votes, and pulled exactly 30).
Nebraska is the first Republican-controlled state in over 40 years to repeal the death penalty, a fascinating account in a number of ways. I’m not sure it’s “a Nixon-visits-Red-China moment” but it’s big. When it makes a John Oliver segment, you know it’s big (and messed up in some strangely entertaining way).
It’s fascinating that Governor Pete Ricketts responded with the tweet: “My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families.” I found myself shouting at my computer when I read this, like some crazy sports fan yelling at the TV. “Are you serious?” I asked (expletives redacted). “Are you aware that Nebraska hasn’t had an execution in almost 20 years? You do know that your death row of 11 just dropped to 10 because another guy died waiting to be executed, right?” Nebraska’s death penalty was a waste of time and money, which is part of the reason conservatives voted to repeal it.
But what I find especially fascinating is the role that lethal injection drugs—or more accurately, the lack thereof—played in Nebraska’s repeal. Here’s the backstory:
When drug manufacturer Hospira pulled out of the sodium thiopental market in early 2011, death penalty states scrambled to replace the supplier. They had to. Thiopental was the first drug in the then-standard three-drug lethal injection protocol.
Nebraska was memorable in this regard because it bought thiopental from a broker in India, who, as it turned out, had gotten the drug from a Swiss manufacturer that was adamantly opposed to the use of its product in executions. When the Swiss manufacturer found out, it demanded that Nebraska give its drugs back. Nebraska said no. (My colleague Jim Gibson and I detail this story and others in a forthcoming article on the international market for death penalty drugs).
Fast forward to 2015. Nebraska has been out of thiopental for years, everyone knows the drug isn’t gettable any longer, and the legislature is about to override the governor’s veto. On the eve of the vote, the governor makes an announcement: he’s got the drugs. $54,000 later, they’re on their way—from the same broker that sold the state someone else’s drugs in 2011. No need to repeal, Nebraska can start executing again. Maybe the rest of the country can too.
Except, hold up. The thiopental shortage wasn’t just about suppliers refusing to sell. It was also the result of a 2013 DC circuit court decision forcing the FDA to enforce its import controls, which basically put the kibosh on states’ efforts to import thiopental for lethal injection purposes, a “concededly misbranded” use.
The Nebraska Attorney General says the DC circuit decision doesn’t apply to it because it wasn’t a party to the case. I’m yelling at my computer again. Does the state AG really think Nebraska is exempt from FDA enforcement of import controls because it wasn’t a party to the case that started the enforcement?
The FDA said this in response: “With very limited exceptions, which do not apply here, it is unlawful to import this drug, and the FDA would refuse its admission into the United States.”
Nebraska says it’s going ahead with the executions, despite the repeal, as soon as the drugs come in—which I think means never, but its claim of authority for doing so is the topic of my next post.
In the meantime, I find myself wondering whether the administration’s actions here were just a political ploy, or whether the problems with procuring death penalty drugs have become a bona fide tipping point for repeal and/or retention. If the latter, then the international market for death penalty drugs has had an impact indeed.
Wednesday, June 03, 2015
Next Stop: Crazyville, AL
(H/T for the title: My colleague, Tom Baker)
As I believe I have written here before, my law school mentor, Marty Redish, used to tell us that when our legal analysis matched our political preferences, we should go back and rethink the legal analysis [ed: To be clear: The conclusion may remain the same, but we should do it again to be sure.] I thus can feel a slight sense of academic pride in defending the various moves by Roy Moore and other officials and advocates in Alabama--people with whom I agree on virtually nothing--trying to stop marriage equality.
But this move about ends that. The relators in the state mandamus action have moved for "Clarification and Reaffirmation" of the mandamus order, in light of Judge Granade's decision to certify and enjoin plaintiff and defendant classes, effectively making the federal injunction statewide. The relators argue that Judge Granade has made her injunction superior to the state mandamus, that she overruled the state supreme court, that she created an unnecessary conflict, and that her decision is a "direct assault" and "unprecedented attack" on the mandamus order and on the state judiciary. In other words, the identical criticisms that people on the other side leveled against the relators and the mandamus given the existing federal injunction--but if those arguments were wrong then (and they were), don't make them now.. They also argue that Judge Granade should have abstained in deference to the state proceeding, particularly under Burford. More problematic is the rhetoric in the motion, which uses some form of the word "legitimate" or "illegitimate" around fifteen times in seventeen pages, both in describing Judge Granade's decisions, as well as in describing the likely eventual decision from SCOTUS.
Ulimately, I am not sure of the point of the motion. No one doubts the mandamus remains in effect. And no one doubts that probate judges might find themselves under conflicting orders (once the stay on the class injunction is lifted), which is inherent in concurrent jurisdiction and not such an unusual occurrence (especially given that abstention is always discretionary). And the relators are genuinely deluded if they believe, as they suggest in a long footnote, that the mandamus will have any effect on SCOTUS's decisionmaking in Obergefell.
What hath Pearson wrought?
Michael Dorf and Scott Michelman comment on Monday's summary grant-and-reverse in Taylor v. Barkes, another qualified immunity case. The Court held unanimously that the right at issue (to have jails create and implement sufficient suicide screenings) was not clearly established; no SCOTUS precedent established such a right, the lower courts were divided, and Third Circuit precedent, even if it could clearly establish, was not on point. The analysis sounded very much like San Francisco v. Sheehan, which Richard discussed at the time.
I want to pull on a small thread that both Michael and Scott raise--how 2009's Pearson v. Callahan makes Taylor (and other cases) possible. Pearson overruled Saucier v. Katz, rejecting the rigid "order of battle" in which a court must first decide whether the plaintiff's right was violated on the facts at hand (on summary judgment or in the complaint) before considering whether that right was clearly established. Pearson unanimously held that, while this order of battle is typically appropriate, it is not required. A court may save judicial resources and time by deciding that a right is obviously not clearly established without getting into the weeds of a possibly difficult constitutional question. It is not surprising that lower courts have taken Pearson at its word and regularly assume a violation and reject the right as not clearly established (I discuss two examples from the Fifth Circuit, although with a focus on summary judgment analysis, here).
What is perhaps unexpected (I certainly did not anticipate it) is how the Justices themselves have used Pearson. It offers a simple, cheap, and powerful tool for protecting law enforcement officers and other government officials from judgments* the Justices regard as erroneous, without expending the time and resources on plenary review, necessitating substantive constitutional lawmaking (which Michelman discusses as something that can cut for or against civil rights plaintiffs), or violating the Court's self-imposed limit against granting plenary certiorari review solely for error correction. Pearson enabled the summary reversal in Taylor; the Court could get the defendants out from under the adverse decision in six pages, with little work and no need to engage in substantive Fourth or Fifth Amendment analysis. It similarly enabled Sheehan; the Court could hang onto and quickly resolve the "clearly established" issue, even while DIGing or avoiding the substantive issues and without having to really address the cert.-worthiness of that issue standing alone.
[*] Actually, not even judgments in most of these cases, but the erroneous denial of summary judgment or 12(b)(6) and the burden of having to litigate any longer.
Saturday, May 23, 2015
Preclusion, ascertainability, and civil rights classes
On this post about class certification in the Alabama marriage litigation, commenter "Hash" began an exchange about the scope of that class, whether it was properly defined, whether it was "ascertainable," and whether it allows for some gamesmanship by class members to avoid preclusion.
The class of plaintiffs is defined, in relevant part, as "all persons in Alabama who wish to obtain a marriage license in order to marry a person of the same sex," with class members identifiable by their application for a license. Hash raises the following situation (I'm paraphrasing):
The plaintiffs lose and Judge Granade decides that Alabama's SSM ban does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. A same-sex couple goes to federal court seeking an injunction against enforcement of the ban; the government argues preclusion, that the couple were part of a class in an action that already decided that the ban was constitutional. In response, the couple will argue that they were not part of the (unsuccessful) class because, at the time of the district court's ruling, they did not wish to be married. They only decided to get married afterwards, so the decision in the class action cannot be binding on them.
The problem, Hash argues, is that this couple will have no qualms about relying on the injunction to obtain the license, creating a one-way opt-out, claiming the benefits of the injunction if they win but avoiding the drawbacks if they lose.
My fuller thoughts after the jump.
First, Hash raises a genuine issue. All else being equal, this is how a couple would try to get around preclusion. And he is correct that the class definition should and generally will be merits-blind. True, it probably wasn't in this case, in part because, as another commenter notes, the class action is a follow-up to two previous individual injunctions in the same action, so we know exactly how Judge Granade comes out on the constitutional question. But it will not always be so.
Second, I do not believe this is unique to the marriage case, but rather is endemic to FRCP 23(b)(2) classes in constitutional actions. At pp. 7-8 of the class certification order, Judge Granade cites several 23(b)(2) precedents, with classes defined as, for example, "female students who seek to participate in varsity intercollegiate athletics" or "persons seeking abortions." These classes do not seem to be defined much differently than the class here, in that all are unspecified as to time. And I expect that, as Asher suggests in the comments to the earlier post, Judge Granade understood her injunction as applying to all people who wish to get married in the future. In fact, she cited one other case in which the class was defined as everyone who wished or expected to engage in some expressive activity in the future.
But does that raise due process concerns, in that someone will be bound in their future activity? Especially since 12(b)(2) requires neither notice nor opportunity to opt out of the class? I do not believe so for several reasons, somewhat tied to the nature of injunctive relief.
First, to the extent the government would argue issue preclusion, that generally does not apply to purely legal questions, such as the declaration that SSM bans do not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.
Second, even if the denial of the class injunction has claim-preclusive effect on every couple who may seek to marry in the future, this hypothetical couple will not be left without an option. Rather than filing a new action for an injunction--likely before Judge Granade, if in the Southern District--and having to face a preclusion defense, they could go back to Judge Granade as part of this action and seek relief from the judgment denying the injunction, under FRCP 60(b)(6) or (b)(5). The couple's arguments would be the same in both--the ban is, in fact, unconstitutional and the probate judge should be enjoined from enforcing it. And the trigger to both actions would be the same--some change in the law (for example, a decision from SCOTUS or the Eleventh Circuit) renders Judge Granade's denial of the injunction erroneous and inequitable. This, of course, is the converse of what defendants do to get out from under continuing injunctions and what the Alabama probate judges will do in Strawser if Obergefell comes out the opposite of what everyone expects. But it also is what an individual plaintiff would do, so why would it not work for class members?
Does this resolve the problem?
Thursday, May 21, 2015
Class certifcation in Alabama SSM litigation
Judge Callie Granade of the Southern District of Alabama took a giant step towards establishing marriage equality throughout Alabama. Judge Granade finally granted the motion for class certification in Strawser. She certified a plaintiff class of
all persons in Alabama who wish to obtain a marriage license in order to marry a person of the same sex and to have the marriage recognized under Alabama law, and who are unable to do so because of the enforcement of Alabama's laws prohibiting the issuance of marriage licenses to same sex couples and barring recognition of their marriages.
And she certified a defendant class of
all Alabama county probate judges who are enforcing or in the future may enforce Alabama's laws barring the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples and refusing to recognize their marriages.
In a separate order, she extended the preliminary injunction, previously entered against Probate Judge Don Davis, to Probate Judge Tim Russell and the rest of that defendant class, prohibiting them from enforcing the state's same-sex marriage ban and requiring them to issue licenses to any member of the protective class who follows the proper steps towards obtaining a marriage license. But Judge Granade then stayed the injunction pending SCOTUS resolution of Obergefell, which is "imminent."
Thoughts on the order and where this leaves us after the jump.Assuming (as everyone expects) Obergefell establishes Fourteenth Amendment protection for same-sex marriage, Judge Granade will immediately lift the stay, establishing a binding injunction prohibiting enforcement of the Alabama SSM ban effective throughout the state and guaranteeing every same-sex couple a marriage license. That injunction is necessary to put Obergefell into effect in the state, since that decision will have nothing to say directly to Alabama law or to any Alabama officials. And because it protects all possible couples and binds alll possible probate judges, it spares couples the trouble of having to initiate individual litigation against individual judges to obtain injunctions in light of Obergefell.
Judge Granade also swept aside various arguments that the federal court should defer to the state mandamus prohibiting probate judges from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Rooker-Feldman, the Anti Injunction Act, and every other abstention doctrine were inapplicable, since the plaintiffs were not parties to the state mandamus proceeding and, in any event, the federal injunction preceded the state mandamus.
Granade further insisted that, pursuant to the Supremacy Clause, the federal injunction enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment trumps state law and the state mandamus action, citing SCOTUS' discussion of the Supremacy Clause and Ex Parte Young from Armstrong. As she put it, the defendants "cannot be held liable for violating Alabama state law when their conduct was required by the United States Constitution."*
* I actually believe Judge Granade's analysis is wrong on this point. The conflict here is not between a state law and a federal injunction applying the Fourteenth Amendment against that state law. The conflict is between two judicial decisions and orders--one state, one federal--interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supremacy Clause does not raise the federal order above the state order. Judge Granade's view that the Fourteenth Amendment requires defendants to issuance of licenses does not trump the Alabama Supreme Court's view that the Fourteenth Amendment does not require, and in fact prohibits, issuance of those licenses. This analysis again reflects the erroneous view that one district court's declaration establishes the meaning of "the Constitution."
The correct answer is that there is, indeed, a potential conflict between the two orders. But the state mandamus expressly allows probate judges to show that they are under a conflicting federal obligation, offering a basis to be relieved from the state mandamus. In other words, the state court order itself eliminates any federal-state conflict, obviating the need for the federal court to avoid the conflict by staying its hand.
Of course, it would not be Alabama if someone did not misstate what is going on. Today, it was the Southern Poverty Law Center, which stated that this decision "ends the chaos and confusion that Attorney General Strange and Chief Justice Moore have intentionally caused through their reckless rejection of federal constitutional principles." As I have written and continue to write, I am not quite sure what "federal constitutional principles" Strange or Moore have rejected. That is, unless "any decision with which we agree, even a non-binding precedent from a single district judge, must be binding on everyone everywhere" is a federal constitutional principle.
Monday, May 18, 2015
Justice Scalia was not pleased
Justice Scalia was not pleased with Monday's decision or with the petitioners in San Francisco v. Sheehan. The Court dismissed certiorari as improvidently granted on one question, involving application of a provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act to police affecting arrests, because petitioners ended up not briefing or pursuing that issue. The court then resolved the other question, holding that officers were entitled to qualified immunity for an incident in which officers entered the room of a mentally ill woman and shot her when she charged at them with a knife.
While agreeing with the decision to DIG the first issue, Scalia, joined by Justice Kagan, argued that the Court also should have dismissed the second question as improvidently granted, because the Court never would have granted cert on a fact-bound qualified immunity issue standing alone. Scalia argued that while non-independently certworthy issues often are decided alongside connected certworthy issues, where the certworthy issues is dismissed, the Court should not decide the otherwise unworthy subsidiary issue. And he placed the blame squarely on the city and county; he threw around terms such as "induce," "bait-and-switch tactics," and "reward[ing]" petitioners by giving them "all they seek" to describe what San Francisco did and what the Court was allowing it to do. Scalia worried that future litigants will be encouraged to "seek review premised on arguments they never plan to press, secure in the knowledge that once they find a toehold on this Court's docket, we will consider whatever workaday arguments they choose to present."
Otherwise, Justice Alito's opinion for six justices (Justice Breyer recused) was a straightforward restatement and application of the emerging modern law of qualified immunity, in all its unfortunate development. The Court again questioned, without deciding, whether binding circuit precedent or a "robust consensus of cases of persuasive authority" could clearly establish a right. And it showed how precedent-bound the analysis has become, with clearly established being all about how factually analogous or distinguishable prior cases are. At one point, the Court spoke of reasonable officers "carefully read[ing]" precedents and what officers could know from that precedent--giving voice to the fiction that police officers actually read case law and are put on notice and guided by the factual specifics of prior cases compared with the situation they currently face.
Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Muslim cartoons and Nazis in Skokie
Here is a nice post from Ron Collins (CoOp) on several different angles and issues in the controversy over Pam Geller and the cartoon contest. Interestingly, Collins compares this controversy to the Nazis marching in Skokie in 1977, which similarly divided the left on the appropriate protection for hateful, deliberately provocative speech that might provoke violence. Collins points out that the National ACLU has been unequivocal as to Geller, insisting that "it’s not even a tough question" that what she is doing is protected by the First Amendment. The ACLU famously lost money and members over its decision to represent the Nazis back in the day.
Collins also links to this piece in Reason comparing The New York Times' op-ed page position on Skokie with its position on the cartoons. It includes excerpts from last's week's editorial and from January 1, 1978's Nazis, Skokie and the A.C.L.U. The comparison reveals the shifting "yes, but" that Paul identified. Thirty-seven years ago, The Times never felt the need to suggest that Frank Collin's stunt was "not really about free speech," but instead was "an exercise in bigotry and hatred posing as a blow for freedom." Rather, that piece placed the burden on the People of Skokie to "demonstrate their respect for the law" by not engaging in violence.
Again, none of this affects the legal protection of anyone's speech. But there is a rhetorical and narrative difference that does make a difference.
Saturday, May 09, 2015
The First Amendment's Burden of Persuasion
In his post on that NYT editorial about Pam Geller and the cartoon contest. Paul says the following:
But their typical "yes, but" editorials on the subject would generally have ended with the civil libertarian point: yes, the speech is contemptible, but, followed by cut-and-paste quotes by Holmes and Brandeis. This is a "yes, but" editorial with the opposite orientation: yes, the speech is protected, but....
Of course, it is not only The Times that has long utilized that first "yes, but" structure; courts do it, as well. Consider Chief Justice Roberts in Snyder v. Phelps:
Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro. Westboro's funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible. But . . .
Or Roberts' former boss, Chief Justice Rehnquist, in Hustler v. Falwell:
There is no doubt that the caricature of respondent and his mother published in Hustler is at best a distant cousin of the political cartoons described above, and a rather poor relation at that. If it were possible by laying down a principled standard to separate the one from the other, public discourse would probably suffer little or no harm. But we doubt that there is any such standard . ..
Several years ago, Erica Goldberg wrote at CoOp that she regretted the continued need for that "yes but" structure: "The day that I don’t have to disassociate myself from the speech that I am defending is the day that I can stop worrying so much about the state of free speech issues on campus." In fact, really, it always has been thus.
This is why I believe Paul is onto something that reflects a change in how we think and talk about the freedom of speech. In a comment to Paul's post, I described this as shifting the burden of persuasion. The first orientation acknowledges the speaker and the speech as contemptible, but celebrates First Amendment principle; the second orientation acknowledges the First Amendment, but focuses on condemning the speech and the speaker. Put another way: The first version focuses on celebrating First Amendment principle while accepting the speaker/speech as the cost of that; the second version focuses on condemning the speaker/speech while accepting the First Amendment as the cost, but one that demands the forceful condemnation as more necessary and more essential. Put a third way: The first structure seems to say "We don't like these speakers, but we have the First Amendment;" the second structure says "We're stuck with the First Amendment, but we really hate this speaker, he should not have spoken, and he may have even brought any injury on himself."
Compare that with how Roberts closed in Snyder: "As a Nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case." That is different in tone, if not substance, from what The Times and others are saying about Charlie Hebdo, Pam Geller, the cartoons, etc. Now, I am not suggesting that it is not ok to criticize offensive speech and speakers even while defending their right to speak; the First Amendment does not immunize Pam Geller from criticism.
The point, I think, is a shift in which of those things we highlight. Perhaps this shifted burden will not make a difference doctrinally. But how we perceive the First Amendment affects how we talk about it, which perhaps affects how free speech controversies play out. If the focus is on condemnation, does the constitutional principle lose some of its luster? If the focus is on condemnation, will speakers be less willing to speak or less willing to pursue efforts to protect these principles? This, in turn, may affect how the courts eventually come to think and talk about the First Amendment.
Friday, May 08, 2015
Is public litigation better than private litigation?
The Obama Justice Department, first under Eric Holder and now under Loretta Lynch, is taking § 14141* out for a spin, opening broad investigations into an increasing number of local police departments. The most recent (and unsurprising) investigation is about to be opened in Baltimore.
* Update: Sidenote: How do you pronounce this section orally? Is it "one-four-one-four-one"? Is it "fourteen-one-four-one"? is it "fourteen-one-forty-one" (which is my preference)?
Section 14141 allows DOJ to file a civil action and obtain an injunction to stop patterns or practices of unconstitutional behavior by state and local law enforcement. In a sense § 14141 is a public counterpart to private actions under § 1983. The "pattern or practice" language of § 14141 mimics the judicially imposed standard for establishing municipal liability and the liability standards basically overlap. Both actions result in potentially broad structural injunctive relief (or a consent decree) requiring judicial monitoring of a local law enforcement agency and significant, sometimes costly changes to agency practices. Both may involve wide-ranging investigations; DOJ conducts a broad independent investigation pre-litigation, while a private investigation only can be conducted through post-filing court-supervised discovery. But this seems like a small difference. Yet there is much greater resistance to private than public litigation of this type, even though the result will be the same. Complaints about "government by judicial decree" are frequently leveled at § 1983 litigation, but not as much as at § 14141 claims.
So the objection, it seems, is not to federal injunctions against local police departments, but to injunctions entered through private litigation and at the urging/advocacy of private parties. Put differently, many people are opposed to (or at least less comfortable with) injunctions entered through the efforts of private attorneys general than through the efforts of the real attorney general. But why should that be? Both causes of action are established by Congress, so they have the same underlying political legitimacy. The resulting decree will not necessarily be different. Private attorneys general undertake the investigations for which DOJ may lack the resources, time, or political will. Consider that the amount of § 14141 activity in the Obama Administration is substantially greater than the activity during the GWB Administration.** And consider that DOJ is going into places--Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland--where long-simmering tensions created by longstanding (unconstitutional) police policies and practices finally exploded, creating the type of large problem that warrants intervention by the federal government. Perhaps, however, if private litigants had more leeway to pursue smaller systemic violations, they could stop them before they reach this breaking point.
** The head of the Civil Rights Division for several years of the Bush Administration is now my dean. His division preferred informal negotiated cooperative resolution or letters of understanding rather than the adversarial, confrontational approach entailed in litigation and formal decrees.
This expanded use of § 14141 makes some sense in historical context. It was enacted in 1996 1994 (sorry for the typo), so the law is less than 100 years old. The last four years of the Clinton DOJ was still trying to make heads or tails of the law. The Bush DOJ had other enforcement priorities and, as noted above, a different approach. The current Department understands how the law works, should work, and can work, along with a renewed interest on local policing that has become a flashpoint. But the question remains whether it would have become less of a flashpoint were more private litigation possible.
Thursday, May 07, 2015
Same-Sex Marriage: The (Ted) Kennedy Legacy
The odds-makers are generally in agreement that the deciding vote in Obergefell v. Hodges will be Justice Kennedy. While some have speculated that Chief Justice Roberts will find a way to join in a majority judgment (if not majority opinion) recognizing a Constitutional right to same-sex marriage, the more-prevalent view is that the liberal-conservative stalwarts on the Court will split 4-4 and that Kennedy will cast the decisive fifth vote one way or the other. If he sides with the proponents of same-sex marriage, the winners will have another Kennedy to thank, albeit posthumously, for that result: Senator Ted Kennedy.
The narrative goes like this:
In 1987, Justice Lewis Powell retired, leaving President Ronald Reagan his third Supreme Court vacancy to fill. (The first occurred when Potter Stewart retired, and President Reagan appointed Sandra Day O'Connor. The second occurred when Chief Justice Warren Burger retired, and President Reagan elevated William Rehnquist to the Chief Justice seat and appointed Antonin Scalia to fill the vacancy.) Reagan nominated Judge Robert Bork of the D.C. Circuit, leading to the infamous confirmation hearing that ended with a Senate vote rejecting Bork, 58-42.
Bork’s greatest and first nemesis in that nomination process was Senator Kennedy, who took to the Senate floor and urged that “Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.”
Notably absent from that floor speech was any notion of rights for gays and lesbians. Remember, this was 1987. Bowers v. Hardwick, the 1986 case that permitted states to criminalize sexual conduct between members of the same sex, was fresh law (and remained on the books until 2002, when Justice Kennedy wrote the decision in Lawrence v. Texas that overturned it).
Kennedy's speech galvanized the Senate, and the nation. Vice-President Joe Biden, then a senator and chair of the Judiciary Committee, had his own field day during the committee hearings. I was a fresh-faced first-year law student, and the protests on my law-school campus made indelible impressions on me. When Bork was ultimately defeated, we knew we had won. We didn't quite know what we had won, but we knew we had won something.
President Reagan next nominated Douglas Ginsburg to fill Powell's spot, but Ginsburg withdrew after reports surfaced that he had used marijuana. (Remember, it was 1987.) So Reagan turned to Anthony Kennedy. And here we are today.
Bork died in 2012. Had he won confirmation and remained on the Court until his death, President Obama would have been in office at the time of the vacancy. Given the likelihood that Obama would have appointed a justice favorably disposed to same-sex-marriage rights, some might say that blocking the Bork nomination had no ultimate impact on this issue. But it’s important to remember that Obergefell did not materialize out of thin air. It comes following years of development of legal protections for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people: (1) the Kennedy opinion in Romer v. Evans, which in 1995 struck down a state constitutional provision banning anti-discrimination laws protecting gays, lesbians, and bisexuals; (2) the 2002 Kennedy opinion in Lawrence; and (3) the 2013 Kennedy opinion in United States v. Windsor, overturning a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act.
So some credit is due to Senator Kennedy, arguably responsible (at least in part) for the ultimate nomination of Justice Kennedy. And that Kennedy-Kennedy legacy may end up making a bigger mark on history when the Court announces the Obergefell decision at the end of June.
Sunday, May 03, 2015
During the break between the petitioner and Solicitor General arguments on the first issue in Obergefell, a protester began screaming about how the Bible tells us that supporters of gay marriage will burn in hell, it's an abomination, etc. After the guy was pulled out of the courtroom (apparently it took four officers), the Chief offered Donald Verilli an extra minute to compose himself; Verilli first accepted, then declined. As Verilli was moving to the podium to begin his argument, Justice Scalia said "It was rather refreshing, actually," which was met with laughter from the gallery. (The whole thing is at pp. 27-28 of the transcript and at the very end of the petitioner's argument on the audio).
Jeffrey Toobin argued that the real ugly part was not the outburst, but Scalia's "shameful" joke. According to Toobin's article, expanded upon in this Political Scene Podcast, what Scalia found "refreshing" was that someone inside the courtroom was finally making the real argument against same-sex marriage--moral condemnation of homosexuality and LGBTQ people--rather than the sterile and ultimately incoherent arguments about accidental procreation and "biological moms and dads." Scalia was not joking; he was endorsing the viewpoint expressed by someone intentionally disrupting the proceedings and regretting that viewpoint's absence from the actual proceedings. Toobin even suggested that the response was not real laughter, but shock at what Scalia had said.
Honestly, it never occurred to me that Scalia was suggesting that this was the "real" argument that he wished would be made in the case. I heard this as genuine laughter rather than shock at Scalia's provocativeness (the advantage to being able to hear the argument, not just read it). It certainly is unusual for a justice to comment on courtroom protests, much less through a joke--and perhaps it is inappropriate. Perhaps Scalia meant that the protest broke the tension of the argument. If so, we can note that Scalia never finds the anti-Citizens United protests "refreshing," suggesting he simply was reacting to the rare protester who is not on the opposite side of an issue as he is. And that, too, might be inappropriate.
But was Scalia really "endorsing" the views expressed? Is Toobin right about this? Or is this another example of simplistic and reductivist coverage of the Court? And am I being too forgiving of Scalia?
Thursday, April 30, 2015
Upon further review . . .
I am rethinking my two posts on what happens in the lower courts outside the Sixth Circuit if the Court rejects marriage equality in Obergefell. I stand by my earlier suggestion that state officials will go back to the district court to dissolve the injunction.
But on further consideration, I am not sure this is significant or even necessary. And the reason goes back to the limited scope of the actual injunctions. None of the cases involved class actions; all were individual plaintiffs (generally 3-4 couples). Thus, when SCOTUS denied cert., state officials were obligated by the injunction only to issue licenses to the named plaintiffs, which they did. They were not obligated by the injunction to issue licenses to anyone else and no one else was entitled by the injunction to a license. So it is not the injunction that obligates state officials in California, Illinois, Utah, etc., to issue licenses to same-sex couples--it is the circuit precedent and the knowledge that they will be sued, enjoined, and made to pay attorneys' fees if they do not issue the licenses to new couples.
So there is no pressing reason for Scott Walker to get the Wisconsin injunction dissolved after Obergefell, at least in avoiding issuing new marriage licenses, although he will do it anyway. The injunction is not imposing any current obligations on him.
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
A new wrinkle on now-invalid injunctions
A colleague at an Oregon-based school offers a different twist on what happens to Article III-final injunctions if the petitioners lose in Obergefell: What happens if the relevant state actors (the Governor or the AG) favor same-sex marriage and decline to file the motion to dissolve the injunction? This would be most likely in Oregon and California, where state officials declined to defend the ban or appeal the district court's decision invalidating it. This, my colleague suggested, might offer state officials a "weird way" to get around their own state's laws.
I can see four possibilities, although I would like to hear more (or hear why my three are wrong).
First, the district court might raise the issue sua sponte and issue an order to show cause why the injunction should not be dissolved; the state officials will have to respond and either distinguish Obergefell (or the state laws at issue there) or acknowledge that changed legal circumstances require the injunction be dissolved. Judges are not obligated to raise merits issue in this way (contra subject matter jurisdiction). But they often will do so, especially when it means getting cases off their dockets. And the judge has incentive to do this, precisely to prevent state officials from not enforcing laws they do not like.
Second, someone might intervene in the district court and file the motion to dissolve. It might be a county clerk arguing that the injunction is compelling him to act in a way contrary to controlling Supreme Court precedent. Or it might be one of the sponsors of the voter initiative that produced the constitutional amendment (a Rule 24 intervenor need not have Article III standing).
This involves a couple of tricky FRCP 24 issues. First, it is not clear who would be able to intervene as of right under FRCP 24(a)--would a clerk or the initiative sponsor claim an "interest" relating to the case that will be impaired or impeded and is not adequately represented? If not, then intervention could only be permissive under 24(b) and subject to the court's discretion. In the initial Oregon litigation, the district court denied permissive intervention by the National Organization for Marriage, even on behalf of an anonymous county clerk who claimed a religious objection to having to issue licenses to same-sex couples. The question is whether the intervention analysis changes if the dispute is over the continuing validity of an injunction that is inconsistent with new Supreme Court precedent, as opposed to the validity of the underlying law. Certainly the district judge may be more willing to permit 24(b) intervention in this situation than in the underlying action.
Third, someone--again, probably a county clerk or the initiative proponents--goes to state court, themselves or on behalf of the state, seeking a mandamus ordering the Governor or AG to do their duty and file the motion to dissolve the federal injunction. Whether this option is available and depends on specifics of Oregon law.
Fourth, state processes in Oregon (another voter initiative or some other process to amend the state constitution) repeals the 2004 constitutional amendment, perhaps moving very quickly to do so. As my colleague argues, the political culture has so changed in Oregon in just a decade that no one wants to defend the ban or to reinstate it by taking steps to dissolve the federal injunction.
Thoughts? My original post assumed that state officials would be anxious to dissolve the injunctions. This example shows that there may be a few states where that will not be true.
Fontana and Braman empirically test the countermajoritarian difficulty
David Fontana and Donald Braman (both of GW) discuss their study showing that, on the question of marriage equality, people do not [ed: oops] care whether marriage equality is established by SCOTUS or by Congress. Opinions on same-sex marriage were unchanged by the institution that established it.
What if SCOTUS rejects marriage equality?
I have not yet read/listened to the Obergefell arguments (I plan to get to it as soon as I finish writing this), although I have read some reports. I am fairly confident the Court will declare that SSM bans are invalid (and I am kind-of confident it will be a 6-3 vote).
But for now, suppose the Court goes the other way and holds that the Fourteenth Amendment does not guarantee marriage equality and does not require states to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages. After the jump, I want to consider four procedural questions: 1) What do the states do where same-sex marriage has come via federal court order that has become final (including all the cases in which SCOTUS denied cert. last fall, as well as California); 2) What do the states do where a district court judgment invalidating the state ban is pending on appeal but was not stayed? 3) What happens to the same-sex marriages that have been entered in those states where the federal decision has gone to final judgment? 4) What happens to the same-sex marriages that have been entered in those states in which the district court decision is on appeal but has not been stayed (e.g., Florida and the four couples in my beloved Alabama)?
1) The states return to the district court supervising the injunction with a motion to dissolve under FRCP 60(b)(5) or (b)(6). The argument is that there has been a "significant change" in the legal circumstances, in that the conduct the injunction prohibited (denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples) has become constitutionally permissible; the injunction thus is no longer equitable, as it is based on a judicial decision that is no longer valid in light of the prevailing understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment announced by SCOTUS. It seems pretty obvious that an injunction based on some extrapolation from Windsor, Lawrence, Romer, and general Equal Protection principles cannot survive a decision from SCOTUS expressly declaring that same-sex marriage bans do not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. So the motion will be granted, the injunction will be dissolved, and the state law barring issuance of licenses to same-sex couples will again be enforceable.
2) This situation presents three paths to the same outcome. First, these states could simply present Obergefell to the court of appeals, which will apply it to reverse the district court judgments and to order final judgment entered in favor of the states on the constitutional issues. Alternatively, the court of appeals could shift the work back to the district court by summarily vacating and remanding for reconsideration in light of Obergefell, with the district court itself applying Obergefell to enter judgment in favor of the state. A third possibility is for these states to file the sameRule 60(b) motion in the district court. Under FRAP 12.1 and local rules in several Circuits (including the Eleventh, one of the places in which appeals are pending), a district court can make an "indicative ruling" on a motion (including a Rule 60(b) motion) that it otherwise lacks jurisdiction to resolve because the case is in the court of appeals; if the district court indicates its intent to grant the motion, the court of appeals can remand the case to allow the district court to grant the motion and to enter the revised judgment. Under any approach, the result is that the injunction will be dissolved and the state ban on same-sex marriage again becomes enforceable.
3) These marriages remain valid. The states granted licenses to these couples under a federal injunction that had been appealed and had become final. The state of the law in these states was that prohibitions on same-sex marriage were invalid and unenforceable, meaning these couples were legally entitled to those licenses and state officials were legally obligated to grant them. And that remained the state of the law until the district court dissolved the injunction.
4) I am not sure of the answer to this. Mike Dorf argued here that there is no basis in federal constitutional law to "grandfather" some marriages, which would effectively give permanent force to a judgment that has been subsequently reversed. The validity of these marriages ultimately would be a matter of state law, unhindered by the U.S. Constitution. That sounds right, but I welcome competing arguments.
Saturday, April 25, 2015
If I've lost the media . . .
I have made pretty clear my view that the Alabama Supreme Court and Alabama public officials have not been defying federal courts or federal law over same-sex marriage, given the limited scope of district court orders and injunctions. And I thought I had convinced Emily Bazelon when she wrote this, based in part on interviews with Orin Kerr and with me.
But then on Friday's Slate Political Gabfest, in a preview of next week's Obergefell arguments, Bazelon used the words "rebel" and "defy" to describe recent events in Alabama. Oh well. A subsequent email exchange indicated differences in views about the interaction between the mandamus and the federal injunction and the effect of each on the other. In my view (which I explain further here), the injunction only obligated one probate judge, Don Davis, to issue licenses to the four couples who are plaintiffs in Strawser, which he did. At that point, the mandamus did not impose any obligations on Davis or anyone else that competed or conflicted with obligations from the federal court. We are back to one (functionally) lower federal court disagreeing with another lower federal court about federal law. That is disagreement, not defiance or rebellion.
Thursday, April 23, 2015
Forum selection, upside-down
The family of Michael Brown has filed a civil rights action against the City of Ferguson, the former Chief of Police, and Darren Wilson. The complaint is a bit confusing. It appears to assert multiple individual, supervisory, and Monell counts for Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations, including a claim for loss of familial relationship under the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as excessive force. The complaint goes after Ferguson's larger patterns-or-practices of unconstitutional behavior, describing events going back as far as 2010. At the same time, the introduction describes it as a wrongful death action under Missouri law for violations of the U.S. and Missouri constitutions, even though the state Constitution is never mentioned again and no torts (battery, whatever) are asserted.
It is noteworthy--and puzzling--that the family filed in state rather than federal court. There is nothing state-based about the legal rights actually asserted in the Complaint; this is a straight-forward § 1983 claim asserting federal constitutional rights. The idea behind federal question jurisdiction was to offer parties the expertise and respect for federal law and federal rights that federal judges offer, as well as the freedom to protect those rights that comes with Article III protections. And that idea takes on special importance when asserting constitutional claims against local governments and local government officials that only became possible with the Fourteenth Amendment, where federal judges are insulated from the local pro-government pressures that might work against civil-rights plaintiffs. Indeed, arguments against congressional jurisdiction-stripping always have fought against the bogeyman of plaintiffs forced to pursue federal constitutional rights against local government institutions before an uninsulated local judiciary.* Has federal judicial procedure--Twiqbal, summary judgment, limits on discovery--become so hostile to civil rights plaintiffs and so pro-defendant that plaintiffs would prefer to litigate against a local government in state court? Consider that the two biggest hurdles that § 1983 plaintiffs regularly face--qualified immunity and the heightened demands for making a Monell claim--follow them into state court anyway. So why pick state over federal in this type of case?
Addition: Note that I am assuming the choice was strategic rather than familiar. The three lawyers on the case include one attorney from Clayton, MO and two from Tallahassee. The web site for the latter two indicates that they largely specialize in personal injury and automobile accident cases, although Civil Rights is listed as a practice area. I cannot find anything about the local attorney (who has been in front of the media since the fall). If all three are primarily PI lawyers who primarily litigate in state court, the choice of forum might simply have been an automatic move rather than a deliberate choice based on specialized understanding of § 1983 litigation.
The interesting question is whether the defendants remove, seeing as how they might see themselves as being in an advantageous position in either court.
Additional thoughts on Wong and June and the FTCA
I have a SCOTUSBlog opinion analysis on Wednesday's decision in U.S. v. Wong (along with U.S. v. June). A divided Court (Kagan writing the majority, for Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor) held that the statute of limitations in the Federal Tort Claims Act is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling.
This is the right conclusion--both that the statute is not jurisdictional and that it is subject to equitable tolling. But I have some additional thoughts after the jump.
The problem is that the Court continues to erroneously conflate the concepts of jurisdictionality and mandatoriness--using "jurisdictional" as inaccurate shorthand for "mandatory" (or "non-tollable," to the extent that is word). Properly understood, a statute of limitations should never be jurisdictional, because it has nothing to do with vesting a court with authority to hear and resolve the issues in a case. Timeliness goes to whether the pleader can bring and move forward with the claim in a court of proper jurisdiction. But that leaves unresolved whether the statute of limitations is or should be mandatory--understood and applied as "brooking no exceptions," to use language from Justice Alito's dissent. And the Court's inaccuracy on this spawns inaccuracy in Congress, which continues to legislate with the jurisdictional/non-jurisdictional divided in mind, rather than thinking expressly and explicitly about mandatory/less-than-mandatory. Or better, thinking expressly and explicitly about a rule (timely filing) and exceptions to the rule.
The Justices at least recognized this gap in Wong and the possible need to shift the analysis away from jurisdictionality language and to a direct focus on mandatoriness. Justice Kagan dropped a footnote agreeing that Congress could preclude equitable tolling of a nonjurisdictional limitations period, but punted on the issue by insisting that the government had made no arguments for non-tolling independent of arguments about jurisdictionality. Justice Alito's dissent sought to separate the issues, at least in part. Acknowledging that the Court might want to avoid the jurisdictional label given everything it entails, he insisted that § 2401 is nonetheless not subject to tolling. As I explain in the review, Alito argued that "'Forever barred' must mean something. It is 'no weak-kneed command,' nor is it 'qualified or aspirational.' These words are absolute and 'brook no exceptions.'” While the right approach, Alito's textual argument does not support the conclusion. All statutes of limitations offer a textual command--the claim is barred if not filed withing X period. If the statute offered a textual basis for tolling (through less-emphatic language or through enumerated exceptions), then a court would not be utilizing equitable tolling, it would be applying statutory tolling provisions. Congress still needed to do something more than it did in § 2401 to foreclose a court from wielding its inherent equitable discretion to toll.
Sunday, April 12, 2015
Teaching citizens to video--and to exercise the First Amendment
This PBS story from Friday discusses the "Video as Evidence" program, begun by the international human-rights organization WITNESS, to teach people how to record video of police and other public government activities. The goal is to train people to document events not only for use on YouTube and in public discussions of police misconduct, but also for effective use in court, which is where any "accountability" must occur through criminal prosecution and civil litigation. Issues include training in how to properly frame and follow images and events, as well as how to ensure authenticity and a proper chain of custody. WITNESS's primary focus is outside the United States, but the idea could and probably should be recreated here.
Thursday, April 09, 2015
Lost faith in the courts
But RFRA laws do not grant an unrestrained license to exclude or discriminate. With the exception of some state bills, which were opposed even by champions of religious accommodation and which failed, most RFRAs (including Indiana’s) do not compel any result. What they do require is balancing.
The problem is where left/liberal/progressive advocates are on judicial enforcement of individual rights right now and their attitudes towards the current Supreme Court. The assumption is that any balancing done by this Court--the Court that gave us Hobby Lobby*--will always, unavoidably, and automatically favor the religious believer against the woman or LGBTQ person being disadvantaged in the marketplace. Any balancing will be informed by the pro-religion preferences of that five-Justice majority and the claim for accommodation will always prevail over anti-discrimination statutes and principles. So saying that RFRA does not compel a result but only balancing is no comfort, because one side believes it knows how that balancing is going to come out.
* When does Hobby Lobby replace Citizens United as the single-case synonym for everything wrong with the Roberts Court?
Update (Friday): According to this story, UM reversed course and planned to show the movie at the originally scheduled time and place on Friday evening; a university official said the decision to cancel was "not consistent with the high value the University of Michigan places on freedom of expression and our respect for the right of students to make their own choices in such matters." The story also reveals that new UM football coach Jim Harbaugh is proud to be an American and does not care if that offends anyone. Glad to hear that, Coach; I was concerned.
Original Post (Thursday):
Ron Collins at CoOp (who has become my go-to person for new First Amendment news) reports on a controversy at the University of Michigan. A university organization, in response to a petition, cancelled a planned screening of Clint Eastwood's American Sniper; in response to a counter-petition started by a 3L law student, the university moved the screening to an alternate location. According to the Daily Caller, the university will show Paddington Bear instead. Collins quote Floyd Abrams as saying "Surely, this is the best evidence yet that a speech-destroying storm is sweeping across American campuses. The students who seek to ban speech have much to learn but a university that yields to their demands can hardly be trusted to teach them.”
The First Amendment's preferred response, Justice Brandeis would tell is, is counter-speech. And the objecting students could have engaged in all manner of it here--protest outside or around the building, take to various fora real and virtual fora to urge people not to attend, show a different, contrary movie at the same time and in a similar location. But that never seems to enter the picture; the objector's move is to jump directly to silencing the message to which they object.
One possibility is that the harm caused by the speech being heard is simply too great--the harm comes with the film and cannot be alleviated by alternative messages. This view is bound-up with unique concerns about identity, disadvantaged groups, and social power imbalances. This is not your grandfather's censorship of socialism and dirty movies--the sorts of speech that progressives sought to protect once upon a time. This is about racism and hate crimes and its utterance cannot be tolerated.* This is the default (and likely?) explanation that so worries Abrams and others (including me) about the state of the First Amendment, especially on campus.
* Drawing on a point from some comments to this post: The First Amendment does not distinguish between a racist epithet or rant and a serious, if ugly and even racist, political message--both are protected. But that may be necessary because opponents of speech do not distinguish when they call for silencing--American Sniper is not qualitatively different than a long racist rant that promotes racist rhetoric "contributes" to hate crimes. In other words, American Sniper is the same as the SAE chant is the same as the stupid woman at South Carolina.
A second possibility is that counter-speech is hard. It requires people to get out there, organize, protest, etc. Obviously these students worked hard to create the groundswell necessary for the university to cave, sending out messages and garnering support. But organizing new events and protests requires another level of commitment. Plus, your side may lose with counter-speech--you may not convince anyone to come over to your position and more people may choose to see the movie anyway. The only sure way to win is not to let the other side be heard.
Finally, a third possibility shifts the blame back to the university. Acting on concerns for safety, convenience, and "order," universities (and governments generally) make counter-speech incredibly difficult. Universities demand permits, push many protests into "free speech zones," impose restrictions on the numbers of protesters and where they can be and when, and generally create all manner of time, place, and manner limitations designed to ensure that public protest not last and that it not inconvenience or annoy anyone else. The result is to deter counter-speech--it simply becomes too difficult to do it and not worth the candle. (Note that I am speaking generally here--I do not know anything about the specifics of UM's protest-and-demonstration policies). So I will reapply Abrams' criticism of universities: By limiting the type of counter-speech in which protesting students might engage, the university itself leaves protesting students with no option but to call for silencing.
Wednesday, April 08, 2015
Where are June and Wong?
Back on December 10, the Supreme Court heard arguments in US v. June and US v. Wong, which together raised whether the limitations periods for bringing claims against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act were jurisdictional and not subject to equitable tolling. (I covered the cases for SCOTUSBlog). Four months later, the cases remain pending--one of only two cases from that sitting yet to be decided and despite the Court having quickly and unanimously disposed of the other jurisdiction case from that sitting.
The obvious conclusion is that the Court is divided. The Court has generally been unanimous in its run of jurisdictionality cases over the past decade and almost always finds the issue to be non-jurisdictional. One glaring exception is John R. Sand, which involved the jurisdiction of the Court of Claims over an action against the United States (and thus on which the U.S. has waived its sovereign immunity). So while statutes of limitations ordinarily are not jurisdictional, tying them into a waiver of sovereign immunity potentially alters the analysis. My initial reaction to the argument was that the Court would treat the periods as non-jurisdictional fairly easily; the four-month delay has me rethinking the easy part, if not the conclusion.
Monday, April 06, 2015
University of South Carolina joins the mob
There may be more to this story than is reported here about the University of South Carolina suspending a student for writing a racial slur on a dry-erase board in a study room (as part of a list of complaints about the school). Based on the facts we have, this move is even more egregious than the expulsions at Oklahoma. The Fourth Circuit does not apply Tinker to universities; there is no remote possibility of this being a true threat, fighting words, incitement, or otherwise unprotected speech; and there is no suggestion that using the dry-erase boards in a study room is against university policies (so this cannot be likened to defacing university property). The school simply insists that "racism and incivility" are not tolerated and that the honor code requires everyone to "respect the dignity of all persons" and to "discourage bigotry." Those are all great ideas. But an institution that is subject to the First Amendment cannot further those values by removing from its community anyone who does not share them.
Again, however, if the student is not inclined to sue, the university's power grows.
Thursday, April 02, 2015
Where have you gone, Mary Beth Tinker?
Recent incidents of universities expelling students for racist or offensive speech have included an interesting feature--none of the students seem inclined to sue or otherwise contest the punishments as violating the First Amendment. The two guys from Oklahoma have been on a Regret Tour, seemingly apologizing to every African-American they can find (including random Oklahoma legislators). A story described one of them as having "withdrawn" from OU (interesting language given that OU President David Boren made it very clear that he had expelled them). The University of Maryland went after one student for sending racist emails and the student left, at least for a semester, by "mutual consent." This despite the fact that most commentators believe, doctrinally at least, that expulsion for the speech in these cases violates the First Amendment.
One explanation is that the social norms against racist and other offensive speech have so taken hold that people "caught" engaging in such expression do not want to own or defend it in public. Given the social reproach that they are subject to, ordinary people (as opposed to truly hateful sociopaths such as Fred Phelps) no longer want to fight for the right to say what they did or for the underlying principle that offensive speech is protected. They instead run and hide to let the storm blow over. From a social standpoint, it perhaps is good for norms of equality to take hold.
From a legal standpoint, however, it is unfortunate. Legal rights are lost if not exercised and defended or if those who violate those rights are not called to account. In this context, that requires the speaker to challenge the punishment in court. Moreover, the reluctance to sue increases the power of university officials to impose constitutionally suspect punishment. As one emailer put it, a university president can impose any punishment he wants, "effectively daring the frat members to call his or her bluff."
I have no evidence for this notion, but I wonder if the students are not essentially settling--they agree not to sue, they step away from school for a semester or two, then they are allowed to return once things have quieted down.
Wednesday, April 01, 2015
Ongoing conflicts over campus speech
Short story in the Chronicle of Higher Ed on various new controversies over offensive speech on college campuses, including at Oklahoma, Penn State, Maryland, Bucknell, and Mary Washington.
I would suggest the last two paragraphs, involving three students expelled for using racist epithets on the campus radio station, captures the disconnect and the inherent contradcition (yes, Bucknell is private and can do whatever it wants as a First Amendment matter, but it illustrates the prevailing attitude towards expression):
In an interview Tuesday, Bravman, Bucknell’s president, said that he and his university strongly support free speech and due process. He would not comment on the context of the language, but said that no matter the context, the three students crossed a line.
“There’s no question about that,” Bravman said. “This was hate speech. We own the station and the equipment, and the students were acting as agents of the university. They violated our community standards, and that’s really what this comes down to.”
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Is § 1983 superfluous?
I do not have a whole lot to say about Tuesday's decision in Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Center, although I look forward to reading Steve's (no doubt blistering) comments. But I do wonder about the question posed in the title, as well as whether I need to rethink how I teach Ex Parte Young.
The majority and dissent agreed that Ex Parte Young--formally, an action for "injunctive relief against state [and federal] officers who are violating, or planning to violate, federal law"--is a long-standing creation of courts of equity, rather than a product of the Supremacy Clause. They disagreed over whether the Medicaid Act impliedly limited the availability of such an equitable action--Justice Scalia's majority opinion said it did, Justice Sotomayor's dissent said no. In particular, Sotomayor distinguished this type of equitable action from both § 1983 "and laws" actions and implied statutory actions, insisting that Congress must affirmatively override the former, while the latter are available only if Congress creates and permits them.
How does this affect § 1983? That statute allows for "an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress" against a "person" acting under color of state law who deprives the plaintiff of a right secured by the Constitution. I generally explain Ex Parte Young, at least in constitutional actions, as an interpretation of § 1983--the state executive officer is a person, enforcing or threatening to enforce an unconstitutional law deprives the plaintiff of a right secured, and the request for injunctive relief makes this a suit in equity.*
* For similar reasons, I have always believed that using Young to enforce federal employment statutes (ADA, ADEA, FLSA) against states (thus easing the effect of the 11th Amendment) was incoherent, since the applicable statutes being enforced only regulated the employer, not the individual state official who would be enjoined.
But the position unanimously reflected today is that an individual could enjoin an executive officer from enforcing an unconstitutional or preempted law without § 1983. So what is the point of the "suit in equity" language if the equitable action predates 1871 and would exist without that statutory language? **This question is placed in sharper relief in the dissent, which acknowledges that § 1983 allows for many different remedies, but then lumps them all together under that statute in distinction to the free-standing equitable action.
** Just to clarify: My superfluousness concern is only as to the "suit in equity" clause, not for actions in law (i.e., retroactive relief), which still requires § 1983.
Monday, March 30, 2015
Why state officials fall in line
If, as I have been arguing for the past two months, an injunction and opinion barring enforcement of a state's SSM ban has no formal effect on anyone other than the parties, the question becomes why state officials ever voluntarily change their behavior absent a binding court order and why they do not instead always force new litigation and a new, directly controlling court order.
One reason is attorney's fees, which can escalate pretty quickly. See, for example, Wisconsin, where the state agreed to pay more than $ 1 million in attorney's fees to the ACLU for successfully challenging that state's SSM ban. True, the fees would be nowhere near this high for an individual Alabama probate judge forcing a new couple to sue him to obtain a license. But even low-level fees may provide an incentive for officials to fall in line, even if not formerly obligated to do so.
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
If not Holmes, then Kennedy?
Ron Collins discusses a new book by First Amendment scholar Burt Neuborne, Madison's Music: On Reading the First Amendment. NYU Law hosted a program on the book last week, featuring Justice Sotomayor. In the book, Neuborne refers to Justice Kennedy as "the most important First Amendment Judge that has ever sat on the Supreme Court."
When his book The Great Dissent was published in 2013, Thomas Healy had an exchange with Mike Dorf in which he wondered who might have led the charge on free speech had Holmes not changed his mind in Abrams; Healy ran through a number of names but found all lacking. In my new article, I argue that Justice Brennan (who Healy did not mention in his blog post) would have been the justice to take that lead, discussing the various areas in which Brennan set out (or tried to set out) a uniquely speech-protective First Amendment vision and often succeeded in pulling majorities with him.
Neuborne's book and his comments at NYU present Kennedy as another answer to that question. In the paper, I refer to Kennedy as Brennan's "speech-protective heir," particularly once he had been on the Court for a few years. So could/would Kennedy have been that First Amendment leader without Holmes or Brennan before him (put to one side the impossibility of the counter-factual)? In many areas--notably corporate speech and campaign finance--Kennedy outstrips Brennan in protecting expression. Quantitative studies (one by Eugene Volokh and one by Ashutosh Bhagwat) reveal Kennedy's voting record to overwhelmingly favor free-speech claimants.
I did not think of Kennedy when I was writing the paper. Partly this is because the paper focuses on the First Amendment connections between Holmes and Brennan. Partly this is because Kennedy remains on the Court, so it is more difficult to assess him within the bigger historic picture.
More problematically, Kennedy's First Amendment near-absolutism gets lost in the unfortunately simplistic liberal/conservative rhetoric used to describe the Court, which overlaps with the newish trend that protection of free speech is not the automatically liberal position (as it generally was in Brennan's day). And there is the even-more-simplistic view of Kennedy as the swing vote who tips the balance in every case and at whom the attorneys all direct their arguments (this notion is captured in the line, which I have heard over and over from a practicing attorney, that "you don't count to 5, you count to Kennedy"). Whatever the truth of that view in many constitutional cases, it simply is not true in First Amendment cases. Kennedy is a sure thing for the free-speech claimant; lawyers need to worry about people like Justice Breyer.
Monday, March 23, 2015
A Texas bill that is both stupid and unconstitutional
There are stupid laws, there are unconstitutional laws, and then there is this bill introduced in the Texas House by Rep. Jason Villalba. The bill would define "interruption,disruption, impediment, or interference" with police (already a crime) to include a person "filming, recording, photographing, or documenting the officer within 25 feet of the officer," 100 feet if the person is carrying a handgun. The bill includes an exception for mainstream news media (defined in the bill). Breitbart Texas has a story, including reactions from various advocacy groups and Rep. Villalba's efforts to defend his creation on Twitter by insisting that it protects police without prohibiting recording or efforts to hold police accountable.
Assuming that recording public events is protected First Amendment activity (the Fifth Circuit has yet to decide the issue), this law would be in an immense amount of trouble. Where to begin?It is not clear how the simple act of filming, recording, or documenting from 22 feet away, without more, can constitute "interruption, disruption, impediment, or interference." Certainly, a general prohibition on interference could be applied to expressive activity and need only survive intermediate scrutiny under O'Brien. But defining expressive activity as interference raises different constitutional issues. The only interference/impediment from recording alone is that the act of being recorded will cause the officer to change his behavior lest he be caught on camera doing something wrong. If that is the goal, the law would have to satisfy strict scrutiny.
The bill treats expressive conduct differently than non-expressive conduct that implicates the same government concerns. A person who is not "filming, recording, photographing, or documenting" can be within the 25-foot mark, even if he has a handgun. In other words, where I can go depends on whether I am engaging in expressive activity. But if being within 25 feet of the officer interferes, it interferes whether the person is recording or just watching the events. A 25-foot buffer zone around police officers probably might be permissible; limiting that buffer zone only to those engaged in expressive activity is not. That makes the law underinclusive. And worse, it is underinclusive in a way that singles out expressive over non-expressive conduct.
The differential treatment of the mainstream media from non-traditional media and individuals cannot survive strict scrutiny (I doubt it could survive rational basis review), which applies when a law regulates based on speaker identity. Again, no way it survives strict scrutiny, because there is no reason that MSM recording is different from individual or blogger recording in terms of the government interest.
Finally, the real effect of this bill is less on bystander witnesses than on suspects or those in immediate contact with suspects. People directly involved in confrontations with police--themselves or their friends--will not be permitted to record when the police initiate contact. In other words, no Eric Garner video. The cynic in me says that is Villalba really is trying to do.
This has no chance of surviving constitutional scrutiny. It should have little chance of passing. The question is how much this guy wants to stick to his guns. The interesting question is, based on the Breitbart piece, it is Republicans/Libertarians/conservatives who are pushing back on this.
The First Amendment and the Redskins trademark, Part I: Government speech
The following post is by Robert L. Tsai and Christine Haight Farley (both of American); it is the first several guest posts on the Washington Professional Football Team trademark case. It is cross-posted at the Sports Law Blog
The ACLU recently filed an amicus brief in the Washington Redskins trademark case, arguing that the Patent and Trademark Office’s (PTO) cancellation of Redskins registrations constitutes viewpoint discrimination contrary to the First Amendment, and urging the federal court to strike down those portions of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act that prohibit the registration of “immoral,” “scandalous,” or “disparage[ing]” marks. We are deeply concerned with the ACLU’s position. Its proposal to thrust First Amendment law into an area of commercial regulation in unprecedented ways would wreak havoc with trademark law’s careful balance of concerns for property rights, economic exchange, and consumer protection. We believe that the ACLU’s fundamental misunderstanding of trademark law has caused it to misapply First Amendment doctrine.
In this first post, we wish to focus on the ACLU’s invocation of two First Amendment doctrines: viewpoint discrimination and unconstitutional conditions (we leave for a separate post whether the commercial speech doctrine might be appropriate). The ACLU’s position erroneously elides the various forms of government regulation and their contexts, treating trademark law like criminal law, municipal ordinances dealing with protests, laws creating public fora, and public subsidies. But the strongest First Amendment doctrines designed to ensure robust public debate simply don’t map on to trademark regulation without creating a major upheaval in trademark law. First Amendment doctrine requires strict scrutiny whenever there is a direct, content-based regulation of private speech. The federal trademark registry, however, does not operate like a direct regulation of private speech, nor does it create a forum for the expression of private speech.Congress’s power to regulate trademarks flows from, and is constrained by its constitutional authority over interstate commerce. Federal registration of a mark confers certain benefits (e.g., registration is treated as prima facie evidence of validity and ownership of a mark, gives a nationwide priority over subsequent users, and offers access to certain remedies), but it does not create rights. These advantages are more procedural in nature than substantive, closer to internal court rules than criminal laws, permit ordinances, or public subsidies. Trademark rights are instead established by common law from the actual commercial use of the mark; these rights can be asserted in federal court without a registration. It is in this crucial sense that the Lanham Act does not directly regulate expression as such—certainly not in the same way that a criminal law preventing offensive speech, a regulation banning parades without a permit, or even laws that subsidize private speech do. Section 2(a) does not prohibit the utterance of the word “Redskins” or attach any conditions on anyone’s use of that term.
This provision simply refuses to confer the benefits of registration on the Washington football team. The team would still retain the right to assert itself as the first and exclusive user of the term for commercial purposes under federal law. Consequently, the provision offers the Native American challengers in this case only the possibility of a symbolic victory—there would be no need for the team to change its name as it may still use and enforce the mark. Section 2(a) neither chills the free expression of ideas nor inhibits robust public debate.
Unable to point to a public forum or a direct inhibition of expression, the ACLU contends that the PTO registry imposes an unconstitutional condition on speech. In support of this proposition, the ACLU cites Legal Services Corporation v. Velazquez, where the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that prevented publicly-funded legal services lawyers from challenging “existing law.” As Robert has discussed elsewhere, this restriction of subsidized advocacy was tantamount to a ban on anti-government speech. But there is nowhere near the same threat to freedom of expression entailed by Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act—it is not even in the same ballpark. After cancellation of its registration, the Washington football team remains just as free to use the Redskins marks, in commerce or political discourse. Moreover, the fact that registration is cancelled in no way inhibits the mark user’s legally-oriented expression or distorts the normal operations of the legal system, two findings central to the Velazquez ruling. Section 2(a) does not restrict what lawyers can say in court and does not even prevent the mark’s owner from relying on statutory and common law trademark doctrines. It imposes no condition whatsoever on non-commercial expression. As Adam Cox and Adam Samaha have shown, truly unconstitutional conditions are rare, and virtually every constitutional issue can be reframed as an allegedly unconstitutional condition (as the ACLU has done). It is a mistake to do that here.
Closer examination of the idea of viewpoint discrimination shows that it doesn’t really capture how Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act actually works. That concept has been invoked in cases where there is a serious fear of chilling of political speech, i.e., when one side in a debate has to fight with an arm tied behind her back. But there’s no serious concern that anyone’s ideological message is hampered or distorted by the Lanham Act.
Section 2(a) does not turn on a speaker’s actual perspective on an issue. It instead permits an objective determination that a mark, regardless of the owner’s viewpoint, will be perceived as disparaging by the referenced group when used in commerce. Someone who wishes to coopt a disparaging term for positive ends may be barred from registry just as someone whose intended use is to disparage. Thus, Section 2(a) operates without regard to the ideological intention of a speaker. For example, the PTO refused the registration of the mark “The Slants” finding it was disparaging to Asian Americans despite the fact that the applicant was a band whose members are Asian and who intended to take on stereotypes about Asians. The applicant’s viewpoint was irrelevant.
Moreover, enforcement of Section 2(a) does not prevent the utterance of noncommercial pro-Redskins speech, just as it does not prohibit the utterance of non-commercial anti-Redskins speech. Decisions like Rosenberger v. Rectors of Virginia and R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul are simply inapposite.
We think that the best analogue for this type of government regulation is government speech. Under that body of caselaw, the PTO registry constitutes “government speech” rather than regulation of private speech. The doctrine permits government-wide latitude to design its own programs and express its own views, consistent with Congress’s mix of commercial and ideological goals. Reliance on this doctrine would recognize that the PTO registry simply is not a forum created for the exchange of private ideas; rather, it is a tool to facilitate Congress’s goals of regulating interstate commerce and protecting a diverse population of consumers from business practices that foster racial discrimination and stereotyping. These core programmatic goals place Section 2(a) well within the reasoning of two government-speech rulings by the Supreme Court: Rust v. Sullivan, where Congress barred government-funded doctors from advising about the availability of abortion, and FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, which permitted Congress to protect listeners from “obscene, indecent, or profane” broadcasts.
Accepting the ACLU’s invitation to apply First Amendment law maximally to the PTO registry would improperly convert the registry into a free speech forum. It would force the PTO to register all manner of marks, interfering with the government’s delicate balance of regulatory objectives.
A ruling in this case against the football team does express the government’s belief, after careful fact finding, that the term “Redskins,” as used by the Washington football team in commerce, is disparaging to an entire group of people. Under the government speech doctrine, Congress is free to express the view that racially-inflected commerce is wrong, that certain ideas harm consumers in a pluralistic marketplace, and that government sanction of the trademark’s usage might inhibit commercial activity. The PTO, relying on Section 2(a), has expressed that view here, leaving private actors at liberty to agree or disagree.
Finally, consider what actually happens when the PTO refuses to register a mark on the ground that it is “disparaging.” It means that the mark owner cannot claim that the federal government has endorsed or supported that expression for commercial reasons. But he or she can continue to use it in public debate. Moreover, to the extent that the benefits of registration hinder the mark owner from excluding others from using the term in commercial activity, the absence of a registration guarantees a more robust public debate. That result seems far more consistent with ensuring wide-open conversation on matters of public importance than a federal court ruling invalidating this portion of Section 2(a).
The emergence of political hate
An interesting take on hyper-partisanship and deeper political commitments from Keith Humphreys at RBC. But is he right about this being a new phenomenon? I am not so sure.
People hated Lincoln so much they tried to leave the country. Some of the rhetoric directed against, say, Jefferson or Andrew Jackson or FDR was as hateful and hate-filled as anything directed at Clinton, GWB, or Obama, or that will be directed at Hillary. And as for the niche press, the image of the impartial press dates, at the earliest, to the mid-19th century. If we go back to the Founding, there was a Federalist press and an Anti-Federalist press and the lines between them were clear and the rhetoric emerging from them was hostile much in the way Keith describes--that is why John Adams wanted the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Floyd Abrams responds
In this February post, I posited that one reason the ACLU's 2015 Workplan had no First Amendment issues among its 11 "major civil liberties battles" was that, in the ACLU's view, there were no major systematic threats to free speech. In a speech at Temple Law School on Monday, Floyd Abrams responded, identifying two such areas--campus speech and the political left's abandonment of the First Amendment.
First, I am obviously flattered to be on his radar, especially for a blog post. Second, I fear that I was not clear enough in my original post that I was not endorsing the "we won" position, but only proferring one explanation/justification that the ACLU might have been thinking about; on re-reading the post, I do not think that came across as well as it should have or as well as I would have liked.
Third, I agree as to both areas Abrams identifies as systematic problems (I mentioned campus speech codes as one problem area in my post--and that was before Oklahoma and UCLA). Note that they sort of overlap, to the extent many on-campus censorship efforts are directed by the left against right-leaning speech.* And to bring it back to the ACLU Workplan: They share the common feature that the national ACLU and local affiliates may be quite at odds internally and with one another over both issues. And neither are issues that the ACLU is going to use to spearhead its fundraising efforts.
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Judge Granade refused to stay the preliminary injunction against Probate Judge Don Davis ordering him not to enforce the state SSM ban in deciding on marriage licenses. The linked story insists that this now creates a conflict for Davis, as he remains under both the state mandamus declaring the SSM ban constitutionally valid and prohibiting him from issuing licenses to same-sex couples and a federal injunction declaring the ban invalid and ordering him to issue licenses.
But is there actually a conflict? Granade has not yet acted on the plaintiffs' motion to amend and certify a class action. Without that, what we have against him is a federal declaratory judgment of constitutional invalidity that is persuasive-only and an injunction that he already has satisfied as to the currently named plaintiffs (there are four or five at this point, all of whom have been granted licenses). So Davis is under no current federal obligation to issue a license to anyone who does not already have one, thus he faces no conflict with the mandamus prohibiting him from issuing licenses to same-sex couples. Judge Granade's opinion by itself imposes no obligation on him to do anything, so it alone does not create conflicting obligations. That is the fundamental mistake everyone is making.
Fortuitously, here is Will Baude (Chicago) making a similar argument in The Times,* not as to marriage but as to the Affordable Care Act. Baude argues that, if the plaintiffs prevail in King, the administration can comply with the Court's judgment as to the four named plaintiffs, but continue granting subsidies to everyone else, since the Court's order does not apply to them and nothing requires the government to extend the reasoning of an opinion to other people. (H/T: My colleague Tom Baker, who refers to this as the "Dred Scott Move"). In essence, the state mandamus is forcing Davis to do the same--not extend Judge Granade's reasoning to other couples.
If the administration can legally (even if not politically) do this with a Supreme Court opinion, then certainly Don Davis can legally do this with an opinion from Judge Granade.
* On a different note: The headline on Will's op-ed--Could Obama Bypass the Supreme Court--perfectly captures the media's fundamental confusion about how judicial decisionmaking operates. Will's very point is that Obama would not be bypassing the Supreme Court at all in doing this, that he would be complying with the Court's order but not extending its reasoning, which typically is done only as a matter of convenience (to avoid getting sued again and again), not legal obligation. So in no way would this be "bypassing" anything. The headline writer clearly missed that point.