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Friday, June 21, 2024

Fifth Circuit overrules Ex parte Young

Exaggerating only slightly in Mi Familia Vota v. Ogg. Groups brought an EpY challenge to Texas's bullshit post-2020 "election integrity" law, including through some criminal prohibitions. They initially sued the attorney general, but the Texas Supreme Court held that the power to bring criminal charges rested with local prosecutors, not the AG. So plaintiffs amended to add the DA of Harris County (includes Houston). But the Fifth Circuit held that the DA does not fall within EpY (and thus has 11th Amendment immunity from the § 1983--some statutory claims remain) because: 1) Ogg has general discretion to bring criminal charges and no specific obligation to enforce the challenged statute; 2) her specific duty is to do justice, not to enforce criminal laws through convictions; 3) Ogg has never enforced the challenged law (the lawsuit was filed six days after it took effect) and has agreed not to enforce during litigation.

If not making EpY actions impossible, it offers state officials a roadmap for how to get out of it.

• The court requires that every provision impose a duty on a particular officer to enforce that provision. The DA's general obligation to enforce "criminal laws" is insufficient. But most states do not legislate that specifically. Worse, Texas law generally obligates DAs to "see that justice is done," which is not a duty to enforce. Moreover, discretion is inherent in executive functions, especially prosecutions--the DA possesses some discretion on which cases to bring and when. So even the clearest connection between an official and a particular statute runs aground on that inherent discretion.

• The promise not to enforce is even more problematic. Whether an official will enforce a law is part of justiciability (especially standing); the court now imports that into EpY, exacerbating the conflation of these concepts. Even if this should be part of EpY, the analysis is circular. Ogg promised not to enforce while litigation is pending. But if that promise gets the target defendant out of the suit, the plaintiff has no one to proceed against in the EpY action--the promise not to enforce until the end of litigation ends the litigation.

• The promise not to enforce may not control if plaintiff's can point to enforcement history (again importing a piece of standing analysis). But the court emphasizes that Ogg had no history of enforcement because plaintiffs filed suit less than a week after the law took effect, leaving Ogg no opportunity to do that. The lesson: Do not pursue offensive litigation too quickly. Stated differently, if you use EpY too quickly, your EpY action will fail because the target defendant never enforced the law.

• The court cites Whole Woman's Health for the proposition that rightsholders are not entitled to bring pre-enforcement EpY challenges to all laws and that some constitutional rights must be asserted defensively. But WWH bars an EpY action against state officials who have no authority or obligation to enforce a challenged law that is subject purely to private enforcement; it does not purport to narrow EpY or to limit the right to bring pre-enforcement challenges to publicly enforced laws. And while some rights in some circumstances must be litigated defensively, a Fourteenth Amendment challenge to a criminal law has never been one of them. At the same time, the court adopts a cribbed reading of the part of WWH that allowed medical professionals' claims against the licensing boards; it refused to credit as binding the fractured views of two four-person opinions.

So at least in the Fifth Circuit, rightsholders cannot pursue offensive pre-enforcement litigation against a law unless that law expressly imposes a non-discretionary duty to enforce on a specific official, the official does not agree to withhold enforcement until the end of the case, and the official has had time to enforce in the past and build a record of intention to enforce.

EpY aside, the case features some interesting appellate jurisdiction issues. Ogg appealed the denial of her sovereign immunity defense, which is generally subject to COD review. But plaintiffs asserted claims under the Rehabilitation Act, Voting Rights Act, and Americans With Disabilities Act, all of which (or at least arguably are--the court played coy as to all but the VRA) abrogate sovereign immunity; they argued that immediate review was improper here, since the case would not end if the court of appeals reversed and found sovereign immunity. The court also considered, but declined, to exercise pendent appellate jurisdiction over the question of the plaintiffs' standing; Ogg argued that because standing and EpY turn on the same issues, the court should consider all.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 21, 2024 at 12:00 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink


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