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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Making easy cases complicated

The Tenth Circuit last week decided Cressman v. Thompson, reversing the 12(b)(6) dismissal of a complaint challenging, on First Amendment grounds, the "Sacred Rain Arrow" image on Oklahoma's license plates. The decision, while correct, seems a lot more complcated than it needed to be on several lines, but also illustrates some interesting points.

1) The court spends some initial time on standing, not because there is any real doubt about an injury, but over whether the six state officials were the proper defendants, which the court squeezed into the traceability prong. In other words, the court treated as part of traceability (i.e., causation) whether each named officer defendant is responsible for enforcing the allegedly unconstitutional law that the plaintiff is challenging.

But this strikes me as another example of standing swallowing the entire analysis in anticipatory constitutional litigation. In damages actions, the suability/liability of the defendant under the applicable law is a merits issue; there is no reason for it to become an Article III issue in an Ex Parte Young equitable action such as this. The court does acknowledge the overlap between standing and Ex Parte Young/sovereign immunity, as the propriety of the named defendant is the "common denominator" of both inquiries. To me, however, that just shows that what should be a single merits inquiry--who is liable to the plaintiff--is being misconstrued in jurisdictional terms under multiple doctrines.

2) There is a lot of discussion of Twiqbal plausibility over what should actually be legal issues and conclusion--whether  the picture is symbolic speech (because it would be understood as stating a particularized message) and whether having to display the image (or pay extra money for a specialty plate) constitutes compelled speech under Wooley v. Maynard. None of these are facts subject to plausibility analysis. The court should not be concerned with the plausibility of the plaintiff's legal arguments, only the correctness of those legal arguments. All the plaintiff should have to plead is that he is being made to display the symbol or pay money to avoid displaying it (which really is unconstested); the rest is legal analysis.

3) This case does expose a few problems with various aspects of speech doctrine. One is how clear or articulable a drawing or symbol must be to constitute symbolic speech; there is a split as to the effect that Hurley (which held that speech need not contain a single clearly articulable message) has on Spence (which suggest that symbols must in order to be protected). Another is whether recent government speech cases undermine or overrule compelled speech cases such as Wooley. A third, which the court was more emphatic, is whether Wooley applies to all compelled messages or only ideological ones (the district court read Wooley to apply only to ideological messages, such as "Live Free or Die"). The court mostly avoided resolving these legal issues by falling back on the plausibility of the plaintiff's allegations.

This case really does not appear to be a close First Amendment cases--it is as close to being on all fours with Wooley as one can get and I frankly am surprised a state would still believe it could compel someone to display any message on a license plate. For whatever reason, both the district court and the court of appeals (even in reaching the right conclusion) made this case more difficult than it needed to be.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 19, 2013 at 09:31 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink


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